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DeSantis versus the drag queens

But appeals to parental rights may not be enough to protect children

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Feb. 15. Associated Press/Photo by Wilfredo Lee

DeSantis versus the drag queens

Earlier this month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made national headlines again for another salvo in his ongoing war against the worst excesses of progressive anti-culture. This latest controversy concerned an Orlando concert venue, the Orlando Philharmonic Plaza, which was threatened with losing its liquor license because of its decision to admit minors to a performance of “A Drag Queen Christmas” in late December.

The show in question involved much more than mere cross-dressing, featuring songs with grotesquely explicit lyrics, accompanied with sexual images projected on screen and barely clad drag-wearing stage performers simulating sex acts. Nor had the venue been unwarned. Indeed, when the show was first advertised, Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation had sent a strongly-worded letter warning to the Orlando Philharmonic advising that its license would be in jeopardy if it did not limit attendance to over-18s. Instead, the venue simply advised parental discretion, and many parents opted to bring children as young as six to the event. Draw your own conclusions about those parents.

Florida is one of many states with laws on the books protecting children from sexually explicit material, and DeSantis was able to appeal to existing legal precedents for his claim that such an assault on public morals constituted a “public nuisance.” To be sure, many such laws have gone unenforced as an increasingly permissive culture has sought to justify any form of obscenity as “free speech” protected by the First Amendment, but DeSantis can probably count on broad popular support when it comes to drawing the line at age 18. Even as most Americans have accepted that consenting adults can do whatever they want, they retain a vague sense that they ought to protect their children from seeing the full range of debauchery.

Indeed, the decision to punish the Orlando Philharmonic with the loss of its liquor license was particularly apt. Liquor licenses, after all, are a recognition that while alcohol is not wrong per se, it can easily harm individuals or whole communities, and thus the right to sell it is a privilege that comes with duties to dispense it responsibly. Likewise, the wanton depiction of sexual license can also wreak havoc on society. Therefore, if the venue could not be trusted to responsibly serve up entertainment to the community, neither should it be trusted to responsibly serve up alcohol. That’s the legal threat. Critics of DeSantis’s move were thus reduced to impotent rants about Republican “fearmonger[ing] about the LGBTQ community.”

By appealing to the language of “parental rights,” progressives are trying to call conservatives’ bluff.

That said, at least one progressive response highlighted a potential contradiction in DeSantis’ recent war against wokeism. Civil rights attorney Alejandra Caraballo complained on Twitter, “They claim it’s about ‘sexually explicit conduct’ or ‘obscene’ material in front of minors but any parent can bring their kid to see a movie like Jackass 4 and see a bunch of … graphic content.”

Caraballo does have a point. While there are a tiny handful of NC-17 films from which under-18s are banned, generally parents are free to bring their children to even the most graphic and explicit movies. Indeed, exhibitions only slightly less obscene than “A Drag Queen Christmas” are a regular fixture of the Super Bowl half-time show. The Orlando Philharmonic, for its part, primly insisted that it was simply committed to “respecting the rights of parents to decide what content is or is not appropriate for their own children.”

By appealing to the language of “parental rights,” progressives are trying to call conservatives’ bluff. After all, DeSantis and other Republican governors have in recent years made “parental rights” the centerpiece of their pushback against CRT and LGBT indoctrination in schools, insisting that parents should have primary say in the ideas and content to which their children are exposed. By this means, conservatives have been able to stand up for public morality without ditching their small-government credentials: We are here to protect the next generation, but we’re not a nanny-state. In this, they have been able to rely on parental common sense as a moral bulwark against the worst excesses of (often childless) woke elites.

But what happens when parents don’t have common sense anymore? Given that today’s young parents were raised in a world of rampant internet pornography and drag queen story-hours at the local library, we can hardly be surprised if many are failing to exercise basic discernment in protecting their own children. Indeed, they’ve been taught that the very notion of protecting their children from “alternative lifestyles” is sheer bigotry.

For now, the “parental rights” train and the “public morals” train are still running largely on parallel tracks. But as they begin to diverge, how far will conservative lawmakers be able or willing to go in exercising their own God-given obligations to protect the next generation from moral ruin?

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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