Several years ago, the Louisville region housed 175 sexually oriented businesses. Thanks to a coalition of concerned citizens — and a billboard campaign — that number has dropped by more than 100.
Editor’s note: Some of the content in this story may be disturbing to some readers.
By the early 2000s, the picturesque river town of Louisville, Ky., was fast becoming a regional hub for commercial sexual activity.
Officials had no idea how many sex businesses were operating in the area because the city had stopped licensing them in 2003. By some accounts, the city boasted nearly 200 sexually oriented businesses, the fifth highest concentration of such businesses in the United States.
“There is no question that the Louisville area (was) one of the worst areas I’ve seen in my whole career,” said Louisville native Roger Young, who spent 23 years in the FBI investigating prostitution and obscenity cases.
Young has been exposed to a lot in a lifetime of fighting sexual vice, but what he witnessed inside the Louisville sex businesses as a private investigator shocked him: prostitution, human waste, random sexual encounters and apparently obscene films and DVDs. One place was so filthy that he burned his shoes after an undercover investigation.
“I really thought we had taken care of all these kinds of businesses in the 1970s and ’80s,” he said. “They’ve reverted to meeting areas for people to have sex, and the people that run the businesses know they are having sex and promote it. Some of these places advertise online all over the country to come to Louisville to meet people to have sex, trade drugs and so forth.”
Louisville might still be Sin City if not for the willingness of a few committed Christians who laid the groundwork for an entire region to stand strong for decency.
Teaching Pastor Don Waddell came to the fight against sexually oriented businesses in a roundabout way. A Hugh Hewitt broadcast on stemcell research in the summer of 2003 piqued his interest, so he decided to devote his adult Bible class in the autumn to exploring bioethics and other current issues.
While researching for his class, two important events converged: He began to deeply explore a culture awash in sin, degradation and heartache and he also became a grandfather. “It occurred to me that I wasn’t very proud of the culture that I was turning over to my granddaughter and most of the degradation that I saw took place on my watch,” he said.
Waddell’s class at Southeast Christian — Kentucky’s largest church, with about 18,000 people — quickly filled to its capacity of 125. As it examined social issues in light of Scripture, the group grew increasingly agitated by the culture. “It was so messed up that we wanted to do something about it,” Waddell said.
The group soon found its focus.
In November, the church’s weekly newspaper, The Southeast Outlook, ran a series of investigative reports on the sex-club industry in Louisville.
Perhaps most striking were Editor Ninie O’Hara’s descriptions of the insides of some of the sex shops. She recounted entering one store and finding it difficult to breathe because of “an evil so menacing it felt there were demons as thick as maggots swarming over the shelves of videos, crawling on the cassette cases with pictures of men and women engaged in all manner of sexual perversion.”
The Outlook series also charted the spread of sexually oriented businesses throughout the Louisville metro area, fueled by a 2003 court decision that opened up more than 1,000 new locations for sex shops and strip clubs to operate.
Even though Southeast Christian sits far away from the neighborhoods being overrun, church members were eager to defend their beloved city.
Senior Pastor Bob Russell, who has since retired, also felt compelled to act — in a wise way. Southeast Christian had already become a lightning rod for criticism because of its strong moral stands on marriage, abortion and gambling. “We didn’t think we needed to deliberately look for fights, but we needed to stand for truth,” Russell said.
He asked Waddell to spearhead the pornography fight. With many class members ready to serve at his side, Pastor Don was eager to live out the church’s mission statement: Evangelize the lost, edify the saved, minister to those in need and be a conscience in the community.
Their first foray was attending the trial of a local sexually oriented business. Their presence generated some publicity and allowed them to voice their concerns about pornography. The group was energized but knew it needed to get organized. They called on the experts 100 miles up the Ohio River.
In February 2004, Phil and Vickie Burress of Citizens for Community Values — which is associated with Focus on the Family — conducted training at Southeast Christian. Phil, who has worked for 25 years keeping Cincinnati free from sex businesses, was impressed with the leadership and was convinced the church was pre-pared to lead the fight.
“It’s very difficult to have long-term success without church involvement,” he told Citizen. “I don’t know of any success story where it wasn’t the church doing the work.”
In March, church leaders formed ROCK — Reclaim our Culture Kentuckiana — with a mission to fight pornography and sexually oriented businesses in the Louisville and southern Indiana region.
Reclaiming the culture
ROCK immediately had an opportunity to get involved. Just two months earlier, with the merger of Louisville city and Jefferson County governments, elected leaders had seen an opportunity to revise their rules on sexually oriented businesses. They hired municipal law attorney Scott Bergthold, who has assisted more than 300 communities with drafting sexually oriented business ordinances.
“They had a pretty significant problem, and that’s not unusual when you’re dealing with a basic lack of regulation,” Bergthold told Citizen. “They have a lot (of businesses) for a city that size. It’s not so much the number; it’s the secondary effects occurring around the premises.”
The sex shops sued over the new ordinance, tying it up in court. And that’s when ROCK’s leaders saw their opportunity to get involved.
Concerned the court would fail to consider the cost to the people affected by the sex shops, board member and attorney Chris Burnside took the unusual step of filing an amicus brief at the trial court level on behalf of Louisville residents. Such actions usually are reserved for cases on appeal. ROCK’s brief shone a light on the underbelly of the city, and included a list compiled by volunteer canvassers of 175 sexually oriented businesses in the area.
The city’s attorneys also submitted affidavits from local residents about the criminal activity occurring around such businesses and the “sexual waste” strewn about the neighborhoods. Roger Young’s explosive investigative reports were also submitted as evidence.
In December 2004, the city won on all but two points of the ordinance. The sex shops appealed. And in an 89-page ruling delivered in October 2007, the appellate court found all parts of the ordinance constitutional: a ban on nudity and alcohol consumption on the premises, a 6-foot buffer between performers and patrons, and a closing time of 1 a.m., among other requirements. It was a significant, but short-lived, victory. The case was appealed in early 2009 to the Kentucky Supreme Court, which has yet to rule.
A new vision
Facing 175 sexually oriented businesses — and unsure when they could put the new ordinance to use — ROCK leaders knew they could no longer work effectively on a volunteer-only basis. So less than a year after forming, board members filed the paperwork to incorporate as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.
ROCK got its final IRS approval in the summer of 2005 and began the search for a full-time president. When board member Bryan Wickens read the job description, he felt it was everything he was called to do. It was also an answer to years of prayer.
Like most boys growing up in Indiana, Wickens had dreams of playing basketball. He starred in high school and played for two years at Wabash College before sensing his limitations as a 5-foot, 10-inch point guard. He gave up basketball to focus on his political science major and history minor. This led him to the University of Nebraska College of Law, where he excelled.
As senior class president, he was chosen to speak at graduation. In 1994, the issue of school prayer was al-ready a hot topic. The class wanted a prayer, but the administration was uneasy. Wickens used his speech to boldly acknowledge God for the accomplishments and blessings in his life.
He soon landed in Louisville, eventually working as a commercial litigation attorney with Frost Brown Todd, the largest firm in the region. Wickens made partner as a 32-year-old and traveled around the country litigating highly contentious cases. He had worldly success and a great salary, but couldn’t stop thinking about his law school graduation speech and that there might be something more out there for him.
“I had always been a student of history and very interested in America’s founding, but from that time forward I really developed a passion for what’s happening in our country,” he said. “It was welling up inside of me in such a way that I really felt a call to be much more involved. That all sounds great, but I didn’t know what that looked like or where to start.”
Wickens reached out to one of his constitutional law school professors, who encouraged him to consider becoming an Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) allied attorney. He applied to the program and was accepted. The train-ing was transformative. At the closing banquet, he told his classmates and instructors, “I don’t know what’s go-ing to happen from here, but I do know this: One way or another, I’m going to give my skills and abilities over to the Lord, and I’m going to be used to serve the kingdom.”
Wickens returned to the grind of commercial litigation. After 18 months with few opportunities, he reached the point of surrender and opened himself up to whatever God had planned for him. A few weeks later, his friend and law partner, Chris Burnside, asked him to join ROCK’s board.
A different engagement
When Wickens left his law firm in September 2005 to serve as ROCK’s president, it quickly became clear that he brought a strategic vision beyond what anyone anticipated. Some on the board wanted him to immediately launch against the offending businesses, but Wickens instead focused on laying the groundwork for long-term success.
He spent his first year building relationships with church leaders, business professionals, health practitioners — anyone he believed would care about the harmful impacts of pornography on the community. Wickens knew that effective campaigns depended on building a coalition that extended past the church doors.
“If we didn’t build relationships first, if we didn’t build credibility and show that maybe the way we’re going about it is different, then we would stub our toe when we went to take a stand,” he said. “That has allowed us to be very, very effective because nobody can just write ROCK off as the moral police and the faith community. They see a whole coalition of different parts of the community, and it is so powerful.”
He also devoted significant time to education. He spoke at churches. He attended city council meetings. He used e-mail, the Web and the radio to spread the word. He even commissioned a series of billboards on pornography’s harm to families.
Wickens has worked methodically to make sure supporters believe in the mission of ROCK and trust the way the group works. The result? ROCK is able to consistently mobilize hundreds of concerned citizens to attend even mundane public hearings.
“We’ve had such a negative message over the years. What I don’t believe works is when you tell people ‘don’t.’ Where’s our positive message? We don’t want to be against things; we want to be for things,” he told Citizen. “I think we hurt our cause when we’re perceived as people who are just against things and want to twist someone into a certain position. That doesn’t build a relationship and hurts us for years to come.”
Wickens is convinced taking an antagonistic public stance ultimately gets nowhere. He genuinely delights in working with elected officials, helping them understand the harms of pornography and the community benefits of passing and enforcing strong laws.
“We’ve been so much more successful working with them rather than opposed to them,” he said. “If you can help people understand how they’re just doing the right thing for their community and let them be the heroes, you have a friend for years to come. If they do the right thing, applaud and cheer them for it. That has been a model for us that has worked time and again.”
Ask Phil Burress what accounts for ROCK’s success and he says, “If I had to put my finger on one thing that made the difference, it was the hiring of Bryan Wickens.”
Bob Russell, who now runs a ministry to pastors, agreed. “The strength of any organization is the person who is the leader and the chief spokesman,” he said. “What makes ROCK so strong is Bryan Wickens. His character has made this a very successful organization.”
John Schmitt, a local businessman who was involved with ROCK from the beginning, believes ROCK is excellent at keeping people informed and keeping the grassroots motivated. “It’s almost like a tea party for decency here in the community,” he said. “They get the churches involved, they get the pastors involved, but what im-presses me the most about ROCK is Bryan Wickens. He plays chess, not checkers.”
Schmitt’s analogy of a chess match is appropriate. Rather than wait for the legal battle over Louisville’s regulations to play out, Wickens and his staff began looking at every possibility for shutting businesses down. They checked permits and business applications, looking for discrepancies. Wickens also started appearing at hearings to oppose alcohol permits, and reporting violations to inspections bureaus in the hope that a business license might be rescinded.
“These guys are so used to nobody showing up. This is what happened in Louisville,” Wickens said. “We’ve gone from an era where nobody showed up to being there every time they turn around.”
Richard Nelson, a policy analyst with the Focus-associated Family Foundation of Kentucky, has seen this approach bear fruit. He began approaching county officials in rural Kentucky in 2004 with the idea of passing strong sex business regulations. At that time, only 17 or 18 counties had protections in place.
“When community leaders saw how vulnerable they were, they jumped on board and enacted the ordi-nance,” he said. “People are realizing they can restrict these businesses to protect the health, safety and welfare of the community.”
Today, 116 of 120 Kentucky counties are protected by strong laws.
In 2004, before this all started, Southeast Outlook Editor Ninie O’Hara wrote, “I’m not sure what it will take to wake up the sleeping giant of Christianity in Louisville. I don’t know how far our community will have to sink into depravity before Christians are willing to step out of the sanctuary and into the battle.”
O’Hara no longer works at the paper, but she would be heartened to know that the key leaders working to restore decency in Louisville credit her vision and her staff’s powerful reporting with waking the community and sparking a transformative movement.
Even with their ordinance stuck in court, Louisville’s citizens and elected leaders have made tremendous strides in cleaning up their city. From a high of 175 sex businesses in 2004, the count now stands at 63.
Phil Burress is astounded by the level of success. “In all my time fighting this issue, and I’ve been at this since 1983, I’ve never seen an organization that has had so much success so quickly,” he said. “If anybody ever wanted to look at the perfect model to clean up your town, it’s Louisville, Kentucky.”
Pastor Bob Russell smiles at ROCK’s efforts over the past five years. “It has far exceeded my expectations,” he said. “Sometimes you start something and it fizzles out, and sometimes you start something and it does abun-dantly more than you ask or imagine. ROCK has caught the imagination of people who are concerned about the moral values of our community. They have taken a strong stand in a loving way and have made a very significant difference.”
ROCK is also gaining a reputation outside the greater Louisville area. They’ve been invited to a conference this fall to train planning officials from Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky. ROCK also is partnering with Southern Bap-tist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler and Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz to further engage churches on the issue.
Wickens gets calls every week from towns across the country looking for help. These calls take him back to his early days at ROCK, sitting alone in an empty room with a computer.
His initial vision that ROCK would help communities be proactive is coming true. He is learning more and more every day how blessed they can be with God involved.
“I believe the possibilities are endless,” he said. “What’s been done here can be duplicated. Other people can do this. I see that, and I want to help make that happen.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
To learn more about ROCK, visit ReclaimOurCulture.org.
To contact Scott Bergthold about drafting or defending sexually oriented business regulations, visit AdultBusinessLaw.com.