updated 9/28/2009 1:26:44 PM ET 2009-09-28T17:26:44

Georgia's top court has ruled in favor of five exotic dancers who argued that their right to perform was effectively stripped by an Atlanta ordinance that bans people under 21 from places where alcohol is sold.

In an unanimous opinion published Monday, the State Supreme Court found the local law conflicts with two state laws dealing with underaged persons who serve alcohol as part of their jobs.

When read together, "it is clear that the Legislature's intent is to allow persons who are over the age of 18 but not yet 21 years old to dispense, serve, sell or handle alcoholic beverages as part of their employment," read the opinion written by Chief Justice Carol Hunstein.

Attorneys representing Deanna Willis, Danielle Barbee, Ashlie Startley, Olivia Almeida and Rachel Haxo had labeled it a right-to-work case.

Justices agreed, writing that the city ordinance "directly impairs the operation of these general statutes by prohibiting persons aged 18 to 21 from entering in or remaining at the premises of licensed establishments where they are legally entitled to hold jobs that involve dispensing, serving, selling or handling alcoholic beverages."

The opinion reversed a Fulton County Superior Court ruling that upheld the city ordinance.

The five women were 19 or 20 in 2007 when the city passed a law forbidding people under 21 from entering and remaining in businesses where alcohol is sold for consumption on the premises.

It exempted convenience stores, stadiums, concert halls and many other places, but not adult entertainment clubs like the Cheetah Lounge, where the women worked and where alcohol sales are a major source of revenue.

The women filed a lawsuit claiming the ordinance was unconstitutional because it violated their free speech rights. After a trial judge ruled in favor of the city in January, the women appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court.

A message seeking comment on the ruling was left with the city Monday. City officials have argued that the ordinance doesn't ban women under 21 from nude dancing — only from dancing in the strip clubs that make most of their revenue from selling alcohol. The goal, they say, is to prevent underage drinking.

But Alan Begner, an attorney who represented the five women, said city council members adopted the ordinance with no evidence that the dancers were underage drinkers.

"I'm really happy for a lot of adults who are under 21 years of age who now have employment opportunities that they once had, but had taken away," he said. "This really is a case about both the right to work and whether a state can change the age of maturity from 18 to 21 in a haphazard way."

He said he was unsure if the plaintiffs still work at the Cheetah Lounge.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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