A group of adult entertainment club leaders — including from Brookhaven’s Pink Pony and Sandy Springs’ Mardi Gras — is suing to stop a new tax that the state says will help victims of child sexual exploitation, but which the clubs say is unconstitutional and not based on evidence.
Approved by voters last year, the tax is scheduled to take effect Jan. 1. The law requires strip clubs and similar venues to annually pay $5,000 or 1 percent of revenue, whichever is greater, to a new “Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund,” which aims to provide housing and services to child sex trafficking victims through means to be determined by a committee.
The state’s rationale is that adult clubs have a “correlation” with child sex trafficking. But the Georgia Association of Club Executives says there’s no evidence of a link. The association’s executive director is Jill Chambers, a former Dunwoody state representative, and other local members are Mardi Gras in Sandy Springs and Oasis in Doraville.
“GA-ACE encourages the Georgia Legislature to focus its efforts on finding and punishing the true perpetrators of these horrible crimes, rather than attacking legitimate Georgia businesses with no connection to the evils the Legislature seeks to prevent,” the group said in a press release about its lawsuit, filed in Fulton County Superior Court on Nov. 10.
The lawsuit claims the tax is unconstitutional on procedural and free-speech issues. On procedure, the association claims, the law authorizing it originated in the Senate rather than the House, and contains multiple issues, both contradicting the state constitution. The tax violates free speech by discriminating against the content of adult entertainment, not other businesses, and by using vague definitions, the lawsuit claims.
The suit was filed against state Attorney General Chris Carr and Department of Revenue Commissioner Lynnette Riley, whose offices declined to comment.
The lawsuit specifically targets legal language introduced by state Senators Renee Unterman (R-Buford) and Elena Parent (D-Atlanta) that claimed that adult businesses are places where sexual predators find children. The claim is “baseless,” says the association, which is a Georgia chapter of a national organization that runs its own sex trafficking prevention program, which has drawn praise from the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
Unterman responded via a press release issued by the Senate Press Office, saying that the statements about child sex trafficking came out of hearings with experts.
“My comment is that there is evidence — it’s shown that these unseemly activities do take place more often in and around adult entertainment enterprises, even if those enterprises are not condoning them,” said Parent, whose district includes the Pink Pony.
Parent provided links to news stories from Florida and Pennsylvania about legislators and nonprofit program workers discussing sex trafficking. One story did not address children at all and the other linked child sexual exploitation broadly to commercial sex, which it described as happening in strip clubs as well as other businesses ranging from truck stops to Facebook.