GOP lawmaker wants to make ‘lewdness’ around kids a crime. Does that mean drag?

Critics say Rep. Colin Jack’s HB424 could be used to “target protected speech and venues, such as the pride parades.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Colin Jack, R-St. George, presents legislation during a meeting of the House Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Committee at the Capitol, Monday, Jan. 29, 2024. Critics say Jack’s HB424 could be used to "target protected speech and venues, such as the pride parades."

A bill that expands which behaviors could be prosecuted as lewdness involving a child does not mention the word “drag,” but St. George Republican Rep. Colin Jack’s focus on such performances was apparent at a committee hearing Wednesday.

Sitting in front of the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee, Jack described images that he said constituents sent lawmakers over the past year. One, he said, was of a shirtless person wearing sequined pants near a child with a microphone sticking out of the zipper. Another, Jack told the committee, pictured “a boy dressed as a girl” giving lap dances in a coffee shop.

“Lewdness involving a child amendments,” or HB424, would add several instances in which someone could be charged for lewdness involving a child under 14.

If done “with the intent to cause affront or alarm to the child or with the intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of the actor or the child,” those instances include simulating masturbation or intercourse, displaying prosthetic male genitals or engaging in erotic touching of a nude breast, regardless of “how the breast was developed or created.”

It also would criminalize someone who “performs any other act of lewdness” with that intent. Anyone who violates the proposed laws could be charged with a class A misdemeanor and face up to one year in jail.

The committee favorably recommended the bill 6-2 in a party-line vote.

Critics worry the bill is too broad and will inhibit free expression protected under the First Amendment — especially expression used as both celebration and protest by the LGBTQ+ community.

Criminal defense lawyer Mark Moffat said the criminal behaviors are not adequately defined in the bill, which “leads to arbitrary enforcement of statutes — one person’s lewdness may not be another person’s lewdness.”

Marina Lowe, the policy director for LGBTQ+ advocacy organization Equality Utah, asked that Jack narrow the scope of what is defined as a crime in the bill.

“We’re concerned that an overzealous prosecutor or law enforcement agent could use this law as a means to target protected speech and venues, such as the pride parades that happen across the state,” Lowe told committee members. “And so we would urge you to take a closer look at the language.”

The bill comes after controversy erupted in St. George over a drag show at a public park. And last year, armed members of the Proud Boys protested outside an all-ages drag show at a Salt Lake City wine and tea shop because the performance was taking place “in front of children.”

Jack successfully proposed a bill during the 2023 session that requires government entities to determine whether an event has an “adult theme,” and post warning signs if it does.

During his presentation, Jack touted the support of Washington County Republican Women, which recently passed a resolution supporting his bill.

The organization’s vice president, Alexis Ence, told the committee, “There are many who are seeking to redefine the term ‘family friendly’ in our state. They feel perhaps that unless it qualifies as obscene, anything goes. This luminous bill sets clear, healthy boundaries for behaviors that are inappropriate in front of children.”

The full House is expected to consider the proposal next week.