One can imagine the list of priorities that each member of the DC Council drew up after the November elections: improve the public school system, encourage development east of the river, bring a professional baseball team to the District, perhaps. But bring more strip clubs to downtown? Who would have thought?
Last month, the council unanimously passed a bill reforming the regulation of liquor sales in the District. A provision of that bill would lift the moratorium on new liquor licenses for clubs that offer nude dancing. Once this provision was made public, an outcry erupted. News stories ran reporting that local entrepreneurs planned to open a branch of the infamous, allegedly Mafia-controlled New York strip club Scores here in the District. A Washington Post editorial urged Mayor Anthony Williams to veto the bill. The Washington City Paper ran an article on the reassessment of the situation by many members of the Council.
The issue now has really been separated into two questions. The first, is it permissible to continue the moratorium on nude dancing establishments in the District? The second, more focused question, should the city allow an organization with alleged Mafia ties to operate in the city?
On the latter, the answer seems rather cut and dry. It is simply wrong for the city to forbid a business prior to a violation of the law occurring. Allegations of impropriety should not be sufficient cause to ban Scores from the District.
The former question is not so clear cut. Although most residents of the city would probably prefer that fewer, rather than more, strip clubs be in business, the law should not reflect that preference unless there is a clear legal reason why clubs should be banned inside of city lines.
Our councilman, Jack Evans, offered perhaps the most suspect defense of the original bill. Among other things, he insisted that the sizable gay community of Ward 2 had lobbied him to lift the moratorium on new strip clubs, suggesting that he had voted in favor of the bill for that reason, in what seems to be a shameless play of sexual identity politics. Other council members, including Susan Ambrose (Ward 6) and Harold Brazil (At-Large), offered more reasonable explanations for their votes. They told the City Paper that they could not vote against the whole bill, which overhauls the liquor controls of the city, simply because of one provision that was questionable.
This is understandable. While many in the city see strip clubs as moral blights on our community, it is not the role of the D.C. Council to act as a moral arbiter in the lives of the citizens it represents. Kathy Patterson (Ward 3) spoke to the essence of this argument in her comments: “The government should not be prohibiting certain kinds of entertainment. I see it as a civil liberty and constitutional kind of issue. Outright prohibition is a heavier hammer than needed.”
I agree with the councilmember on this point, but I also think that acknowledging that the government should not get into the business of prohibition is not the end of the argument. The council has another role, that of city planning; in that respect, they do have an interest in this issue. Just as we would never expect a factory to open up on the corner of Wisconsin and M St., we would never expect a strip club to open in a residential area.
To argue that strip clubs should be banned is to map morality onto public policy where it does not belong. Clearly the demand exists, and as long as the Council can provide something of a division between residential areas and potential locations for these clubs, morality should not enter the equation.