Last week, when Missouri’s governor signed a bill sharply restricting the adult entertainment business, the state’s Catholic bishops, along with their religious and secular allies, applauded the culmination of a long battle against a corrosive local industry.

For years, Missouri state Sen. Matt Bartle fought to tighten controls on adult clubs and bookshops that touted their attractions on highway billboards. Bartle and other critics charged that the adult entertainment industry “exploited women” and fostered crime and social deviancy in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Despite pushback from the industry, which argued that Bartle’s latest bill not only violated their First Amendment rights, but would force closings and adversely affect jobs, Gov. Jay Nixon ultimately signed the legislation.

The contest attracted national attention: A recent Wall Street Journal story underscored the industry’s concerns, quoting adult club employees who expressed fears about lost jobs in a tough economic environment.

The industry has vowed to challenge the constitutionality of the bill. But, for now, the Missouri Catholic Conference is celebrating the political breakthrough.

Victory for Society

“Some legislators were trying to essentially shove the bill into the darkness and prevent a vote on the bill. We knew votes were there, so we worked to bring the bill to light for debate, and we succeeded,” said Kayla Muck, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Catholic Conference, who noted that the conference’s Citizens’ Network intensively lobbied state legislators to rethink their resistance to tightened regulations.

The bill’s passage was fueled by voter unease with the limited oversight of the strip clubs; critics argued that the clubs attracted an undesirable element and underage girls, while free-flowing alcohol encouraged risky behavior between clients and employees.

“Some lament the spread of adult sex shops and bars, but argue that curtailing their activities will undermine basic American liberties. But freedom itself is imperiled when society permits the exploitation of women,” said Mike Hoey, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference.

The new law prohibits the serving of alcohol, total nudity, and physical contact between employees and the customers they serve. The law goes into effect at the end of the summer.

While industry spokesmen predicted that passage of the law could result in job losses totaling 3,000, Jude Huntz, director of the Human Rights Office for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., disputed this forecast.

“I don’t know how many employees there are statewide in this industry, but I liken this prediction to similar arguments made by restaurant owners when faced with laws banning smoking in their establishments. They said the ban would hurt business, but people adapted. This is just industry bluster.”

Bishops’ Priority

While Bartle drove the legislative process, the campaign attracted an array of supporters, from Catholics and evangelicals to local business leaders concerned about the clubs’ impact on their business and real estate values.

“The clubs are located in the trendier spots in the city where there’s a mix of businesses and apartment buildings,” said Huntz. “People were upset to find used condoms and needles in their parking lots.”

Initially, local concerns about two “problematic” establishments led businesses, residents and religious groups to lodge complains with city hall — an effort that produced little redress.

Critics argued that the industry wielded too much influence on local business councils and on the state’s political establishment. When a 2005 legislative effort, designed to restrict the clubs, passed in the state Senate but faded away in the state House, a federal investigation was opened to review charges that adult industry donations had influenced the outcome.

Five years later, the state’s bishops made passage of a similar bill a legislative priority, and 15-20 legislators were personally contacted.

Bishop Robert Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph met with several key lawmakers.

“It seemed clear there were enough votes to pass it, but there were some folks who were keeping it from getting to the floor. My conversation was with someone who was supportive, and encouraging him to help see that this got to a vote,” said Bishop Finn, who has collaborated with Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., on anti-pornography campaigns.

Echoing public concerns about the adult entertainment industry’s outsized political and financial clout, the diocese’s Huntz suggested that “there may be a lot of money behind these clubs: drug selling, prostitution rings. The other day, someone who used to work in the business told me, ‘You have no idea’ about this underworld — how these institutions make money.”

Adult Businesses’ Link to Trafficking

Huntz provided no hard evidence to back such claims. But activists who fight sex trafficking — internationally and domestically — contend that adult entertainment businesses are one component of a vast commercial enterprise that profits from the sexual exploitation of women and minors, particularly those fleeing abusive homes.

“Those who think that sexually oriented businesses are victimless enterprises are very much mistaken,” said Steve Wagner, a Washington, D.C., consultant who worked on sex-trafficking issues in the Department of Health and Human Services during the Bush administration. “They are all too often fronts for human trafficking, and in the U.S., this is mostly about the commercial exploitation of children — American kids. Control of this business is critical.”

Phillip Cosby, executive director of the Kansas City Office for National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families, also disputed the industry’s “job protection” stance, noting that an increasing number of U.S. courts have shrugged off First Amendment concerns in similar legal challenges.

“These businesses are not engines of economic prosperity,” said Cosby, a Baptist leader who has worked closely with Bishop Finn. “The courts accept our negative secondary-effects argument — that the shops are connected to an increase in crime, sexually transmitted diseases, property devaluation, blight and sex trafficking.”

‘Constitutional and Enforceable’ Bill

That argument will soon be put to a test when the Missouri law is challenged in court. But Todd Scott, Sen. Bartle’s chief of staff, reported that the bill was specifically designed to withstand such challenges and that the senator believed it was “constitutional and enforceable.”

“So many lawsuits have been spawned across the years that a considerable body of case law has developed,” Scott noted. “This case law clearly defines the parameters of what the courts have deemed to be constitutional.”

Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Washington.