Sex and city hall

When televangelist Pat Robertson, leader of the Christian Coalition, sponsored a 1994 food giveaway in Fair Park as part of a 17-city charitable tour called "Operation Blessing," Dallas politicians eagerly paraded themselves at the event.

But so did a less likely group of volunteers: managers and owners of several of Dallas' topless clubs.

Burch Management, the Dallas company that controls six area strip bars--including Baby Dolls and Fare West on Northwest Highway--had dispatched its senior executives to the event as part of a campaign to burnish its image. "I don't think Robertson knew they were there," city councilman Paul Fielding, who attended the giveaway, recalls with amusement.

The topless clubs' unlikely civic involvement is no accident. Burch, a company long embroiled in bitter litigation with the city, has made a series of aggressive moves to boost its reputation--and political influence. "We're in a fishbowl," says Burch lawyer Charles Quaid. "We're like Caesar's wife. We have to be beyond reproach."

While "beyond reproach" is clearly an impossible dream for a business built on bared female flesh, Burch has had striking success in wooing the city--and its elected officials.

Burch's new treatment at City Hall illustrates the susceptibility of public officials--even in Dallas--to the favors of those once regarded as the political equivalent of lepers. It also raises questions about whether the city's inability to regulate sexually oriented businesses results from legal barriers--or failures of the political flesh.

A Dallas politician would seem to have every reason to regard the company that runs six strip bars--three in Dallas, three in Fort Worth--as political poison.

Dallas remains a conservative, Bible Belt city, where right and wrong are often placed in the religious context of good and evil, sin and salvation. Notes North Dallas councilwoman Donna Blumer, a past president of the Dallas chapter of Phyllis Schlafly's right-wing Eagle Forum and a staunch opponent of the topless clubs: "If you look at anywhere where topless clubs proliferate, they tend to downgrade an area. They are unquestionably having a harmful effect."

If such sentiments weren't reason enough for a politician to steer clear, Burch Management has waged an expensive, nearly decade-long war with City Hall. In 1986, the Dallas city council passed a resolution that stopped just short of an all-out ban on strip clubs--the scenario that many neighborhood and religious groups sought--by embracing a strategy of dispersal. It barred any clubs from operating within 1,000 feet of homes, churches, and schools (a later revision added hospitals to the list). The city council adopted the dispersal approach largely to avoid an expensive, drawn-out legal battle. It figured such limited regulation--unlike an outright ban--could withstand a court challenge.

It figured wrong.
Topless club owners, including Burch, joined together to challenge the law--and the outcome of the fight remains apparent today along Northwest Highway near Bachman Lake Park, where a cluster of the clubs continues to thrive well within 1,000 feet of homes, churches, and schools.

The city's original ordinance made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where, in January 1990, the justices ruled it constitutional. But the city's success in the high court was not reflected on the streets of Dallas.

Through various means, 15 clubs continue to operate near residential areas. Since the court ruling, three clubs--most prominently, Million Dollar Saloon on Greenville Avenue--have persuaded a panel of three citizens on the Permit and License Board to exempt their establishments from the ordinance because they generate so much tax revenue for the city's coffers. Other clubs could not get an exemption, but dodged shutdown by dressing their dancers in bikini bottoms and flesh-colored pasties to meet the technical condition of the ordinance.

The council responded in 1992 and 1993 by passing a series of revisions that extended the ban to simulated nudity in dance halls within 1,000 feet of a residence. But those revisions opened the way for fresh challenges by Burch. This past March, a Dallas federal judge ruled the revised ordinance unconstitutional, a violation of rights to freedom of expression. The city is appealing the ruling.

Rebuffed in court, despite 10 years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys' time, council members in June sought a truce, asking the city attorney to negotiate a compromise with their longtime enemy.

"I think that's safe enough for a deacon to vote on," declared council member Al Lipscomb, a deacon at St. Mark's Missionary Church, before voting in favor of the resolution authorizing negotiations with the clubs.

Lipscomb had other reasons to favor a truce with Burch. A month earlier, Burch Management officials had been among those in attendance at a fund-raising party at the Stoneleigh Hotel to celebrate the councilman's birthday.

Carefully crafted to insulate council members from political fallout, the compromise-seeking resolution calls for the city manager and the city attorney "to study the underlying issues that led to the litigation with the operators of adult cabarets...and make recommendations that would resolve pending and possible litigation."

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Miriam Rozen
Contact: Miriam Rozen