In a stunning reversal, a legislative bill aimed at tightening up a law passed last year that banned strip club performers younger than 21 has been revised to quash the age restriction entirely.

Amendments to state Sen. Ronnie Johns’ Senate Bill 144, which would trade off the age restriction for a requirement that strip clubs participate in an education program on human trafficking, cleared a Senate committee last week and are now in the hands of the full Senate.

The revisions, proposed by Sen. JP Morrell of New Orleans, might still be amended further as the bill moves through the legislative process. 

But they indicate that the loud opposition from some dancers and the advocacy groups that back them — and particularly a lawsuit over the constitutionality of the ban on dancers ages 18 to 20 — has sparked a change of heart among some lawmakers.

“I took it upon myself for better or worse to try to negotiate a compromise, so that we could address the issue of human trafficking” without infringing on young dancers’ employment rights, Morrell said Monday.

The move also comes amid efforts by some advocacy groups to prove that sex workers are not being trafficked, despite data from Covenant House, a homeless shelter for young people, that suggest that many strip club dancers are trafficked.

The ban has been the subject of litigation since September, when three dancers from New Orleans and Baton Rouge filed suit in federal court to challenge its constitutionality.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier agreed to temporarily block the ban. He said that under it, nude performers would be banned from participating in live theater or other productions, not just in strip clubs, and that it failed to clearly define how much of a dancer’s breasts or buttocks would need to be covered to avoid the restriction.

An earlier version of Johns’ bill would have made minor edits to the law’s language, to address the problems Barbier noted, and would have clearly defined the state’s desire to reduce human trafficking as the reason for the law.

But under the revisions proposed by Morrell, the law would allow dancers 18 and older to strip but would create a “Human Trafficking Education Training Program” that clubs would have to participate in.

Truck stops, gaming establishments, adult bookstores and pornography stores also would have to take part in the program, a nod to arguments that targeting strip clubs alone would not curb the problem of human trafficking.

Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control Commissioner Juana Marine-Lombard would run the program, which would require participants to attend regular training sessions. Club owners would be required to report all instances of human trafficking occurring on their premises to state officials.

If Marine-Lombard finds evidence that a club owner knew of human trafficking but failed to report it, she would be empowered to revoke the club's license, a step Morrell described as the revised bill’s biggest win.

Asked what prompted the turnabout, Morrell cited opposition from women’s groups who said the bill was trying to impose some lawmakers’ moral beliefs on women, as well as the ongoing litigation.

“As long as this whole issue is in litigation, you’re not actually helping anyone,” he said.

Nia Weeks, the director of policy and advocacy for Women with a Vision, a nonprofit group that focuses on sex workers' rights and other women’s issues, said Morrell's and other lawmakers’ change in position resulted from stepped-up efforts to inform legislators about the issue.

“We haven’t heard anyone come to us saying that they were dancing in the clubs and that it led to something else” that was bad, said Weeks, pointing out that her organization works regularly with former and current prostitutes and strip club workers.

Often, women will lie about being trafficked in order to receive a lighter sentence in the court system, or to receive services from some nonprofit groups, she said.

She said the views expressed by Covenant House leader Jim Kelly, who has long advocated for the ban on under-21 dancers, are steeped in “patriarchy.” 

Kelly, however, said the changes in the bill were puzzling, especially considering lawmakers’ unanimous backing of the age restrictions last year. He said Covenant House’s data show that of 90 human trafficking victims the organization surveyed over the past year, almost half had a history of dancing in strip clubs.

Rather than remove the age ban entirely, the compromise could have grandfathered in some younger dancers, as was done last year in New Orleans, he said.

He also said the majority of the Covenant House staff are women.

“We are caring for very, very vulnerable young people who have experienced years of abuse and trauma, and, yes, we are trying to safeguard them,” he said.

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.