It's not very often that exotic dancers are part of the legislative process - unless the story involves a politician's after-hours indiscretions - but five strippers in Atlanta may have overturned ordinances across the state prohibiting 18-20 year olds from entering bars and clubs because of their lawsuit against the City of Atlanta.
Two weeks ago the Georgia Supreme Court published opinions for the recently resolved case Willis et al vs. The City of Atlanta. It was the final chapter in a case brought against the city in 2007 after an ordinance was passed prohibiting 18-20 year olds from entering bars and clubs - nearly identical to the "minors ordinance" enacted in Savannah in spring 2006.
The dancers, who were 19 and 20 when Atlanta passed its ordinance, argued that they were being forced out of their jobs, despite the fact that state law allows 18-20 year olds to work in bars, just not drink alcohol.
The Georgia Supreme Court voted unanimously that Atlanta's ordinance was unconstitutional. Chief Justice Carol Hunstein wrote the opinion, which, in addressing the conflict between local ordinance and state law, said, "the Legislature's intent is to allow persons who are over the age of 18 but not yet 21 years old to dispense, serve, sell or handle alcoholic beverages as part of their employment. To do so, persons within that age group must necessarily be permitted to enter licensed establishments where such beverages are dispensed, served, sold or handled."
Some questions remain as to how broadly the Supreme Court's ruling should be interpreted - whether it means that 18-20 year olds should be allowed in bars, or whether the language of the ordinances simply needs to clarify the right to work.
However, Atlanta-based attorney Alan Begner, who represented the exotic dancers in the Willis case, thinks the ruling applies to general admittance.
"I read this ruling to strike down the whole law," Begner told us last week. "I believe that it applies to customers too."
Begner argues that once a person reaches the age of 18 - also known as the age of majority - it may not be their right to drink alcohol, but it cannot be decided by the local government whether or not people may enter these establishments.
"My argument was that a city cannot arbitrarily change the age of majority," Begner explains. "If they drink, prosecute them, but there's no reason for them not to be allowed in there."
It seemed possible that the court's ruling could have broader implications for Savannah's ordinance.
According to the City's Public Information Director Bret Bell, the City is aware of the case, and the City Attorney, James Blackburn, has reviewed the ruling to see how it could affect the local ordinance. According to Bell, because our local ordinance makes a specific exception for employment of 18-20 year olds, the ruling will probably not affect Savannah.
Savannah's ordinance, sec. 6-1223 (c), states: "It shall be unlawful for any person holding a license for the selling or serving of alcoholic beverages to the public for consumption on the premises...to permit any person under 21 years of age to enter said premises." An exception is made in the local ordinance for restaurants and "hybrid" establishments.
The response from local bar and club owners about fallout from the ruling is mixed. According to Daniel Robertson, owner of the Live Wire Music Hall on River Street, the ability to allow 18-20 year olds to see live music would be a welcome change, giving young people an opportunity to see live music, and helping bands make more money and build a larger fan base.
"Live music in this town is very engaging, and we have a great opportunity for kids 18-20 who are in college to come see live music. But they're very limited in where they can go see it," Robertson says.
"We speak with a lot of parents who call about their son or daughter to find out whether or not they can come to show," he explains. "It's definitely disheartening to the young musicians and young music aficionados that can't come see a show."
City officials have spent considerable time dealing with the issue of underage drinking, and the "bar card" ordinance, which would regulate training for bar staff across the city, will come up for a vote in the next few weeks. Robertson is confident that establishments could enact a system whereby patrons who were too young to drink could enjoy live music without gaining access to alcohol.
Not every owner feels the same way.
Susanne Warnekros, owner of the Jinx on Congress Street, remembers the days when people under 21 were allowed into the bar for music.
"The bands were making more money when the kids could come in, but I always felt like it was so risky, and I had to watch those kids all night long like a babysitter," she explains.
If the ordinance were to change, she is unsure whether she would change the bar's admittance policy or not.
"I'd really have to weigh it out," she says.
Several other owners didn't want to comment on the record about potential changes for fear of repercussions, although many agreed that a change in admittance would put their business at increased risk for underage drinking citations.
The ordinance prohibiting 18-20 year olds from live music venues in Savannah was originally brought up during the summer of 2005 by then-Police Chief Dan Flynn.
At the time, approximately one quarter of all alcohol related incidents downtown involved people who were under the legal drinking age.
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