SALEM, Ore. - In a state where men have legally strolled the streets in nothing but tennis shoes and Portland hosts an annual naked bike ride, nudists appeared at the Oregon Legislature on Monday clothed to ask lawmakers not to let their lifestyle get wrapped up in an effort to regulate strip clubs.
The battle over bare skin renews familiar debates about balancing freedom with neighborhood standards in a state known for its liberal protections of free speech and nude expression.
Nudist advocates testified against a bill that would ask voters to change free-speech protections in the state constitution to let communities keep strip clubs out of neighborhoods. But, nudists warn, that might unintentionally allow cities to outlaw nude recreation.
"We want to protect our rights," said John Kinman, past president of the American Association for Nude Recreation, which has joined the American Civil Liberties Union in opposing the measure.
Debates over nudity have a familiar history in Oregon, where the City of Ashland last year banned public nudity after two men walked naked near public schools. In Portland, the annual World Naked Bike Ride has attracted thousands to protest oil dependence.
The measure at the heart of Monday's hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee would allow cities to use zoning laws to regulate "the location at which a business or organization may offer live entertainment or other services performed by a person in a state of nudity."
Nudists fret that a stodgy city or county government would use that phrase to pounce on nudist clubs. Nude karaoke might be considered live entertainment. Mowing the lawn in the buff might be considered a service.
The nude recreation association recognizes nine nude clubs in Oregon, and the state has two clothing-optional beaches one is even a state park.
Oregon's free speech clause is different from the one in the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment. It says "no law shall be passed ... restricting the right to speak, write, or print freely on any subject whatever," and state courts have interpreted that to protect obscenity.
"We feel comfort in knowing this Legislature or the cities can't pass laws that prohibit what we do," Kinman said.
There have been three attempts in the past two decades to scale back free-speech protections to allow regulation of strip clubs or pornography, but they have all failed at the ballot box, most recently in 2000.
Mike Parker, another member of the nudists association, noted that nobody representing the interests of strip clubs showed up to oppose the bill.
"They're letting us carry the rope for them," Parker said.
Advocates of changing the law include neighborhood groups and the League of Oregon Cities. The sponsors said it is not intended to affect nudists or to outlaw strip clubs altogether. They just want to give cities the power to say where strip clubs can open, the sponsors said.
Felicia Montejano, 17, told lawmakers that her teenage friends have been asked for lap dances at a local club for high school students, and she blames the strip clubs up the street for luring men in their 20s with unsavory motives.
"I don't like hearing my friends say, 'Guess what, I got offered $50 to go do this, I'm so stoked,"' Montejano told lawmakers. "That does not sound appealing, and it's sad to hear this."
It wasn't clear Monday when or if the committee might vote on the bill.