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Iowa Case Questions Whether Nude Dancing Is an Art

Iowa doesn't have any all-nude strip clubs.

Instead, it has performing arts centers where women dance naked.

Now a loophole in the state's public indecent exposure law that allows nude dancing at "art centers" is under attack in the small community of Hamburg, a town of 1,200 just across the Missouri River from Nebraska.

The case pending before a Fremont County judge effects only one business in Hamburg, but if he agrees with the prosecutor, nude dancing clubs across the state could find their legal standing threatened.

It all began on July 21, 2007, at Shotgun Geniez in Hamburg, where the sheriff's 17-year-old niece climbed up on stage and stripped off her clothing. Owner Clarence Judy was charged with violating Iowa's public indecent exposure law.

Judy responded that the law doesn't apply to a "theater, concert hall, art center, museum, or similar establishments" devoted to the arts or theatrical performances.

"Dance has been considered one of the arts, as is sculpture, painting and anything else like that. What Clarence has is a club where people can come and perform," said Michael Murphy, Judy's attorney.

Murphy also noted that the club has a gallery selling collectible posters and other art. And it provides patrons with sketch pads.

Fremont County Attorney Margaret Johnson said it's all nonsense.

The fact is, an underage girl danced naked at the club, and that's illegal, she argued.

"Are you saying that minors can't be protected? Can a group of 12-year-olds come down and go in and dance nude and it's OK? I don't think that's what the Legislature had in mind when it made those additional provisions," Johnson said.

Arguments in the case were made during a one-day trial on July 17 before District Judge Timothy O'Grady, who took the case under advisement.

Johnson said the intent of the law is to allow movies in a theater where there's brief nudity or for an art gallery displaying paintings of nudes.

"Some of the strip clubs in Iowa have taken it a step further, saying they are theaters and providing entertainment, theatrical entertainment, and are exempt too," Johnson said.

Murphy said that since Judy opened his business five years ago, he has had a self-imposed rule banning entry to anyone under 18. The problem, according to Murphy, was when "a group of girls snuck in a 17-year-old."

"While she was there, she felt like dancing so she got up and danced on the stage and then she took her clothes off. Trouble with that is she's the sheriff's niece," he said.

Since turning 18, Murphy said she's returned to the club and danced nude.

Johnson denied that the teen's relation to the sheriff's was connected to the charges filed against Judy.

"I think the parents of that child said 'you will come forward and you will talk about this.' Her parents were absolutely appalled with the situation," Johnson said.

The sheriff declined to comment to The Associated Press on the case. The niece, whose name wasn't available, couldn't be reached to comment.

As part of his defense during trial, Murphy used a 1998 ruling in a Scott County case that found nude dancing is a form of art.

In that case, Jeffery Marshall, the owner of the Southern Comfort Free Threatre for the Performing Arts in Davenport, was charged under the public indecent exposure law for allowing nude dancing.

The judge found Marshall not guilty, in part because the club is a "facility for the presentation of a form of art, though certainly not fine art based on the testimony presented."

The current case deals only with Judy and Shotgun Geniez.

"If he finds it's a theater, then of course, it [the law] doesn't apply. If he finds it's not a theater, they can probably shut him down. That's the risk," Murphy said.

There could be an appeal if either side loses.

Johnson said that would take it to the Iowa Court of Appeals and perhaps the Iowa Supreme Court. That would make it a statewide case that could affirm the right of the dozens of clubs in Iowa or deem them in violation of state law.