In May, the Lone Star State raised the minimum legal age for working in a sexually oriented business from 18 to 21. Texas sex-shop and strip-club workers responded by suing the state in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas. They argue that adults younger than 21 have a "constitutionally protected liberty interest in pursuing a chosen occupation" and that the "disconnect" between the law's objectives and its minimum employment age is "obvious."

Texas counters that it has "long used age restrictions on employment to reduce young people's exposure to perceived social ills."

Senate Bill 315 redefined 18- to 20-year-olds as children, making it a violation of the state's ban on "employment harmful to children" to employ or induce adults younger than 21 to work nude, topless, or in any "sexually oriented commercial activity." That crime is a second-degree felony, "regardless of whether the actor knows the age of the victim." It carries a two-year mandatory minimum sentence, a maximum sentence of 20 years, and a fine of up to $10,000.

Under S.B. 315, it is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail, to employ 18- to 20-year-olds at any sexually oriented business, including adult toy shops and bookstores in nearly any capacity. Such employment could get a business declared a common nuisance, meaning the state can shut it down, issue fines, or even jail the owners.

Since the new law passed, adult businesses in Texas have laid off "droves" of 18- to 20-year-old workers, according to the Texas Entertainment Association (TEA), an organization that represents the interests of sex-oriented businesses and one of the plaintiffs challenging S.B. 315. Kevin Richardson, a TEA member who owns five adult cabarets, told the court he had to lay off more than 700 people due to the new law.

Evanny Salazar is one of the young adults who lost a job after S.B. 315 reclassified her as a child. Salazar "worked at two adult cabarets in San Antonio, Texas, where she earned about $1,000 a night" and did not witness any human trafficking, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman noted in a July ruling. "Before she worked as an exotic dancer, Salazar was homeless and lived in her car," he wrote. "Her job at the adult cabarets allowed Salazar to obtain housing and cover her living expenses. Since losing her job as an exotic dancer, Salazar has become homeless again and works for Door Dash [sic], where she makes about $30 a night."

Nonetheless, Pitman declined to issue a preliminary injunction against S.B. 315. "Legislative history and testimony…are sufficient to support the conclusion that the State held a reasonable belief that S.B. 315 would serve to curb harmful secondary effects" of sexually oriented businesses, he said. "In contrast, Plaintiffs failed to produce any 'actual and convincing evidence' that S.B. 315 'will not have any positive effect on the identified harms.'"

Among the plaintiffs' jobs are exotic dancing, providing security at a strip club, and working the cash register at a sex shop. Pitman agreed that some of these activities are likely protected by the First Amendment. But he said "the Court does not find that Plaintiffs have met their burden of showing that S.B. 315 is not rationally related to the government's legitimate interest in curbing human trafficking."

"Our clients will continue contesting the validity of this law," says William X. King, an attorney representing the plaintiffs. "The case is far from over."

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