Watch a previous NBC4 report on Bellefontaine’s proposed drag ban in the video player above.

BELLEFONTAINE, Ohio (WCMH) — A rural Ohio city will be the first in the state to decide whether to ban drag queen performances in public or where children are present, Secretary of State Frank LaRose ruled on Tuesday.

Bellefontaine residents will be voting Nov. 7 on a proposed city ordinance prohibiting “adult cabaret performance” after LaRose decided on Tuesday the measure is allowed to appear on the city’s ballot. If passed, the measure would be enshrined as part of Bellefontaine’s zoning code regulating adult entertainment. 

“Adult-oriented exhibitions featuring male or female impersonators who provide displays and entertainment appealing to sexual interest, shall not permit the attendance of a minor,” the proposal states. “Adult cabaret performances shall not be held on public property, or any location viewable by a minor.”

Five Bellefontaine residents had argued in an electoral protest that the six members of the “anti-drag” group, who collected nearly 800 support signatures before filing the petition with the Logan County Board of Elections, had submitted the ballot initiative fraudulently. Tim Steinhelfer, an attorney representing the five protestors, said the initiative filed with the city auditor in April did not contain the title language submitted in August to the board of elections that enshrines the drag queen ban as a zoning ordinance. 

“You can’t just swap out the petition after the voters signed them with one you think stands a better chance in court,” Steinhelfer said. “[The residents] were caught red-handed and my clients are trying to protect the integrity of the election.” 

Josh Brown, an attorney representing the anti-drag group, claims the six residents added the header language that enshrines the measure as a zoning ordinance after they were told to do so by election officials.

“It is the board of elections’ responsibility to place the title on the ballot, which is an amendment to the language that’s on the petition,” Brown said. “In this case, petitioners placed the title on the ballot specifically at the direction of the board of elections.”

LaRose cast the tie-breaking vote to allow the proposed measure on the Nov. 7 ballot after the Logan County election board voted 2-2 in a hearing held Sept. 7.

In a letter sent Tuesday to the county’s board of elections, LaRose said the petition’s final version filed with the city auditor “is not the exact same as the version of the petition that was submitted on April 14, 2023, nor is it the same as the version of the petition that was circulated to the voters of Bellefontaine for signature,” citing the title language that was added later on.

However, LaRose wrote it is undisputed that the text of the proposed ordinance remained the same between the April 14 submission, the circulated part-petitions, and the final version submitted on July 24. The only relevant issue was whether the petition contained the full and complete title, he said.

LaRose ruled the headers added “are not the title of the proposed ordinance, rather, they are headings that explain what the proposed ordinance would do should it pass.”

“Upon review of the submitted materials, I find that the part-petitions that were circulated for signature in this matter did contain the full and correct copy of the title of the proposed ordinance,” wrote LaRose. “It is my view that the initiative petition and the part-petitions presented to voters were compliant with the law.”

Steinhelfer told NBC4 he will be challenging the secretary of state’s ruling in the Ohio Supreme Court. Brown, in a statement, said the six residents are proud that LaRose “supported their right to petition with a detailed, robust and legally sound decision.”

“The protestors essentially argued that normal procedures are illegal — namely, the Board of Elections placing a title on the ballot (as opposed to the petition itself),” said Brown.” Although the board may not alter, correct, or make additions to a petition, the board is required to add a title to the ballot when preparing the ballots.”

The idea to start a petition began circulating in Bellefontaine after a drag queen named Blond Vanity was featured riding a jet ski in the city’s 2022 Christmas parade. Danielle Stefaniszyn and Devin Palmer, two of the six anti-drag residents, then attended a Bellefontaine City Council meeting on Jan. 10 “to express concerns over a metropolitan city type float” in the parade and claimed Vanity was “dressed in provocative women’s clothing.”

Blond Vanity, a Columbus-based drag queen, performs in Bellefontaine’s 2022 Christmas parade. (Courtesy Photo/Amomda Avink)

The proposed Bellefontaine ordinance contains similar language to a bill proposed in the Ohio House of Representatives that also seeks to prohibit drag queen performances in public or where children are present. 

House Bill 245 was introduced at the Statehouse on July 18 to ban “adult cabaret performances,” defined as a show “harmful to juveniles” that features “entertainers who exhibit a gender identity that is different from the performers’ or entertainers’ gender assigned at birth.” The bill would prohibit these shows in all locations other than “adult cabarets,” meaning “a nightclub, bar, juice bar, restaurant, bottle club or similar establishment.”

Reps. Josh Williams (R-Sylvania) and Angela King (R-Celina) are proposing the bill with the support of 41 out of 67 Ohio House Republican representatives.

Williams said the bill’s intention is to modernize Ohio’s revised code regarding obscenity viewed by minors, not to effectively ban drag in Ohio. The lawmaker stressed that the proposed measure only means to prohibit shows “harmful to juveniles,” with events like drag story time readings and plays like “Mrs. Doubtfire” covered under the First Amendment. 

View the secretary of state’s letter to Logan County election officials outlining the decision below.