California naturists fight ban on nude sunbathing

For once, working out how to prevent their body hair from being painfully removed by the sticky waxed surface of their boards isn't the only problem facing California's nude surfers.

A fierce battle is brewing over plans to ban nudity at the picturesque San Onofre State Beach, which has been one of America's most famous naturist destinations for more than 40 years.

Ever since the Summer of Love in 1967, free-spirited visitors have let it all hang out at the secluded beauty spot, which stretches along several miles of Pacific coastline roughly half-way between Los Angeles and San Diego.

However, the arrival of a prudish new parks chief means the era of tolerance that has allowed them to sunbathe and surf without getting any nasty tan-lines is about to end. The acting park superintendent Rich Haydon, who arrived in the job this year, has announced that nudity at San Onofre is to be banned from Labour Day, which falls on the first weekend in September. His officers, who have been upset by reports of lewd behaviour on the beach, will arrest any revellers who refuse to cover up.

Signs explaining the change in policy have already been installed around the car park, and patrons are being verbally warned that their endless summer is to be rudely interrupted.

To the local naturist community, this represents an affront to civil liberties. A wide-ranging campaign of disobedience is being planned, and like most good American controversies, the affair is likely to end up in court.

"On Thursday, we filed a lawsuit at Orange County Superior Court, and if necessary, we will fight this all the way up to Federal level," said R Allen Baylis of Friends of San Onofre Beach, a naturist action group. "The law says that if you want to make a radical change to public policy, you have to seek input from the public. And they have totally failed to do that.

"Legal action is of course expensive and we initially hoped it wouldn't come to this, but there are fundamental libertarian issues at stake, and if necessary we can count on financial support from nudists across North America and the rest of the world," he added.

The crux of the problem is the increasing number of "regular" visitors, including many families, in the area. In 2006, 2.7 million people visited San Onofre, up from 1.6 million in 2000. As a result, growing numbers have complained of unwittingly stumbling upon the nudist hotspot. "Times have changed," Mr Haydon told the Los Angeles Times. "San Onofre ... can no longer be considered a remote beauty spot."

Mr Haydon and his parks authority also say sand-dunes around San Onofre's car park are frequently being used for gay "cruising" and open-air sexual activity has also been reported around the local Marine base, Camp Pendleton. The naturist lobby, for its part, argues that these incidents are the isolated transgressions of a small minority of troublemakers.

"What they don't understand is that real nudists aren't responsible for lewd behaviour," said Steve Hubbard, of the American Association for Nude Recreation. "And if they drive law-abiding nudists from the beach, all they'll be left with is the people who want to go there to take part in indecent activities ... Where nudity is accepted and embraced, history shows that you actually see a lowering of crime."

The case is throwing light on California's opaque laws regarding public nudity. State law prohibits nudity in all parks, "except in authorised areas set aside for the purpose". But there are no such areas. Instead, San Onofre and a couple of other reserves are currently governed by the so-called Cahill policy, under which nudity is tolerated unless it elicits a complaint from the public, in which case "voluntary compliance" is sought. Although Mr Haydon plans to rescind the Cahill policy, local naturists – who are holding a barbecue to raise money for their cause today – say his proposed ban will be impossible to enforce.

"In any case, we are going to fight this tooth and nail," said Daniel Gage, a regular visitor. "I've spoken with my wife, and we are going to go down there on the first day it becomes illegal and get our ticket to register protest. We won't go away."