Last week may have marked the first time the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania had ever filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a pole-dancing instructor.
But Witold Walczak, the organization's legal director, said the issues involved were common to many of its cases.
“Why is the ACLU here?” Walczak asked. “The simple reason is this involves teaching, and that is expression protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.”
The instructor, Stephanie Babines, 30, was denied a permit to open a dance studio here. The ACLU has sued to overturn that decision.
Two years ago, Babines began offering instruction in pole dancing, power lap dancing, salsa and other forms of dance and fitness, in peoples' homes and in rented space in a dance studio at night and on weekends.
“I love making people feel better about themselves,” she said. “Through the classes, their bodies change. They start losing inches off their waist. They start fitting into their skinny jeans.”
Business has been so good that she put off finishing her master's degree in elementary education and decided to open her own studio.
But in March, the Adams Township code enforcement officer, Gary Peaco, denied her occupancy permit, ruling that her studio was an adult business and was illegally within 1,000 feet of a bar and a residential area.
Peaco said that even though the dance instruction did not involve nudity and there would be no audience, the dance styles were “provocative” and involved sexual “innuendo.”
Without explanation, the three-member zoning board unanimously denied her appeal on July 29.
“This is in every way a dance studio,” Walczak said. “The only reason they don't want her here is the township commissioners just don't like some of the dances she teaches.”
The chairman of the zoning board, Jeff Brown, rejected that view. “The Zoning Hearing Board enforces the zoning laws of Adams Township,” he said, “and that's what we did.”
Brown, 51, an architect, acknowledged that there were three other pole-dancing studios in the Pittsburgh area, and hundreds more across the country.
“That's the great thing about this country. Each township and community gets to make their own laws,” he said. “And I'm sure what they allow in San Francisco and other places is different from what we do here in Adams Township.”