JEFFERSON CITY — An attorney for sexually oriented stores said Thursday that thousands of jobs and millions of dollars worth of business investments could be imperiled unless a judge blocks a new Missouri law restricting strip clubs and adult video stores.
Judge Jon Beetem of Cole County Circuit Court said he will decide Friday whether to issue a temporary restraining order against the Missouri law, which is to take effect Saturday.
The law could banish new sexually oriented businesses from many communities and require existing shops to remodel to keep customers in sight and away from scantily clad dancers.
"There is an industry that is tied to the tracks and facing a Juggernaut, a freight train that will devastate the assumptions upon which those businesses were built," said attorney Raymond Vasvari, of Cleveland, representing the numerous erotic businesses and dancers who filed suit to challenge the law.
"The sky will not fall if this law is put off just a little bit longer," Vasvari told the judge.
Vasvari argued Missouri lawmakers violated the state constitution by passing the legislation without a committee meeting on an appeal of an official estimate that said the bill would cost the state nothing, and cost local governments less than $100,000 annually, in lost licensing fees.
The lawsuit also claims the Missouri law infringes on First Amendment speech and expression rights and was adopted without valid evidence that sexual businesses have harmful effects.
The Missouri attorney general's office hired Chattanooga, Tenn.-based attorney Scott Bergthold — whose model statutes formed the basis for the Missouri law — to defend it in court. An attorney general's spokeswoman said he is being paid $150 an hour.
The Missouri law requires sexually oriented businesses to close by midnight and bans full nudity, alcohol, minors and touching between semi-nude employees and customers. To ensure a hands-off policy, it mandates that semi-nude employees remain on a stage at least 6 feet from customers. It also bans new sexual businesses from locating within 1,000 feet of homes, schools, churches, libraries, parks, day cares or other sexually oriented businesses.
Bergthold cited numerous court cases in which similar restrictions have been upheld.
"The economic impact is irrelevant to those constitutional claims," Bergthold said.
He said little research is needed to show that keeping naked dancers away from customers reduces the chances of illicit sexual activities, and he said lawmakers need not compare whether sexual businesses cause more societal harm than other businesses.
Ronald Holliger, the general counsel for Attorney General Chris Koster, urged the judge to also reject the lawsuit's procedural claims about the bill's cost estimate. He said previous court cases have upheld the Legislature's right not to follow its own procedures.
In court Thursday were lawmakers both in support of and opposition to the law, as well as the owners of some sexually oriented businesses.
Gene Gruender, who owns Passions book and video stores in Columbia, Boonville and Marshall, said after the hearing that he may have to lay off two overnight employees because of the midnight closing time. He said he also may have to remodel or close video viewing booths because of a requirement that employees have a clear view of the patrons using them.
Under the law, existing businesses have 180 days to comply with the stage and building requirements. Businesses or individuals that don't abide by the requirements could face misdemeanor charges punishable by a fine of up to $500 and 90 days in jail.