Utah Planning to Eliminate Wacky Alcohol Laws, but Why Now? March 20, 2009

Utah Planning to Eliminate Wacky Alcohol Laws, but Why Now?

Hello everyone, it’s Ron Gold here.

Anyone living in Texas, Connecticut, Minnesota, or a handful of other states is probably aware that blue laws are still on the books in many areas. Blue laws, for those lucky enough not to be familiar with them (and who missed Trina Hoaks’ post on them last month), are archaic laws that seek to make religious beliefs part of the secular code. Frequently, they were designed to enforce the holiness of the Lord’s Day, and would often forbid stores from operating on Sundays. These laws often date back to pioneer times, when politicians had even fewer qualms with legislating religious morality than they do today.

Most blue laws have been rolled back throughout the years, but the ones that still exist often prohibit alcohol sales on Sunday. For example, in my home state of Minnesota, there is a very unpopular rule forcing liquor stores to be closed on Sunday. Obviously, it isn’t very effective in stopping people from drinking, since they can stock up on Saturday, and I’ve even known a few people who drove great distances to buy their booze in another state.

It’s probably no great surprise that moralistic Utah has some of the harshest, most ridiculous alcohol prohibitions in the country. All bars have to technically be “social clubs,” where to buy a drink you must first be a member. Typically, anyone can buy a three-week membership for $4 or an annual membership for $12. This is a big pain to bar hoppers, who must become a member at every “club” they go into. Additionally, bartenders have to work behind a glass partition that’s commonly referred to as the “Zion Curtain.”

The driving force behind these very strange laws is clearly the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (The Mormon Church). Indeed, the abstaining Mormons comprise 60% of Utah’s population, and an overwhelming 80% of the state lawmakers.

Considering the teetotaling Mormons are in charge, many people were shocked when the club system was recently scheduled to be eliminated in time for the summer, when the state will start allowing normal bars. Although the governor has wanted this change for a long time, it took him a while to gain the courage to push for it:

The foundation for this year’s changes was laid in 2004, when Republican Jon Huntsman, a former deputy assistant secretary of commerce, was elected governor.

Huntsman, a Mormon, got an earful from tourism officials about the liquor laws. But reforming the rules was politically impractical until November, when Huntsman won a second term in a landslide.

Still, Huntsman faced an uphill battle. Some lawmakers waited until the final days of the legislative session, expecting to hear opposition from the Mormon Church.

When it didn’t come, lawmakers could vote for the changes without much fear of backlash from Mormon constituents.

It’s nice to see Utah adopt a modern policy towards alcohol, but my question is why now? There are a couple of possibilities. First of all, it might be because Mormonism has mellowed out over the years. Mormons still tend to be a conservative bunch, but there’s no doubt that the religion is more progressive than it used to be. Unlike when the religion was founded, it now allows black ministers and has outlawed polygamy, and perhaps has gained a tolerance for those who want to imbibe in the occasional beer.

The other possible reason for the change is purely economical. Utah hasn’t been immune to the recession, and they can’t afford to scare away potential tourists. Tourism officials have blamed the blue laws for sending “lucrative conventions and skiers fleeing to neighboring Colorado.” Also, one Salt Lake City resident “said the changes should make Utah look a little more normal,” and be more inviting to non-Mormons who would come and spend their money there.

I wouldn’t think that Mormons would want to admit the change is for economic reasons, because if they truly believe drinking is immoral, that would mean that their bank accounts are trumping their religious values. I can’t prove which of these theories is correct, but I like to think it’s a little bit of both.

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  • mikespeir

    I wish alcoholic beverages had never been invented. But that genie’s way, way out of the bottle, and we’ve already proven we can’t stuff him back in. These people know they can’t accomplish that, even just for Sunday. But they get to prove their fidelity to their faith and claim that they done what they could to impose righteousness.

  • forkboy1965

    It’s money. Don’t kid yourself.

    They see millions of dollars heading to other states that they could capture. They have a beautiful state, which would be more welcome to tourists if they were able to act as they would in damn near any other place in the country.

    I imagine it’s true of most folks who have a strong faith system: God is great, but money pays the bills.

  • Old Beezle

    The reason is definitely economic.

    Huntsman came up from the commerce department and he is the son of billionaire John Huntsman Sr. He understands money. The interesting thing is that he’s mormon and his wife’s grandfather was one of the mormon church’s Twelve Apostles (ruling body–like a Board of Directors).

    More interesting than the governor’s history/background though is the state’s and church’s backgrounds. The United States government gave the mormons an ultimatum via the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887. Either the church was going to stop practicing polygamy or the U.S. was going to seize their assets. Lo and behond, just as the U.S. was preparing to actually seize the assets in 1890, the mormon church came out with their “1890 Manifesto” banning the practice of polygamy.

    Mormons say that it was divine will, but the truth is simple economics…just like today.

    P.S. the mormon church receives 10% in tithing from its members. With 60% of the state being mormon, any increase in revenue statewide equals an increase in revenue…[cough]…tithing for the mormon church. With the economy the way it is, I’m sure even the mormon church has felt a decline in tithing and this is a way to help make up for it…hell, even Brigham Young owned a distillery back in the day! 🙂

  • Siamang

    I visited Little Rock Arkansas a few years ago. I had to “join a club” to enter a bar.

    I still don’t know what that’s about. Who are they fooling? I go up to a guy, give him money, he gives me a beer. Same same, except they make you do the hokey-pokey before you get your beer.

  • sc0tt

    It’ll be fun watching all the border towns in neighboring states (with casinos and liquor stores) oppose this.

    Hemant – the link to the Washington Post doesn’t work.

  • Mormonism hasn’t mellowed in the least. They’re desperate for $$$. The economy is in the can and despite what some may claim, the boycotts and general negative publicity in the wake of Proposition 8 have had an effect on the Utah economy (tourism, skiing, etc.).

    Of course if the Mormons would quit spending tens of millions to try to run the lives of gay people nationwide, Utah would probably be the richest state in the country.

  • Oh sure…the state loosens up after I move to Texas…

  • sc0tt – Oops, fixed that link (my bad, not Hemant’s).

    Old Beezle – that’s some interesting stuff. It seems like every month I hear something new about Mormonism.

    And one random note: I’ve been trying to reach out to the Mormon faith lately, but it’s bitten me in the ass so far. I picked BYU to beat Texas A&M in the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament. That didn’t turn out so well.

  • As much fun as it is to say “it’s the money!”, it’s not exactly the money.

    Contrary to what is stated above, less than 50% of the population in Utah is LDS and even less than that practice the faith.

    Money might be the reason to get those laws changed, but you’re being disingenuous if you declare it’s the church or even groups of active Mormons that pushed for these changes because they’re putting money ahead of their beliefs (silly as those beliefs may be).

  • rtechie

    “I wish alcoholic beverages had never been invented.”

    Then you’re wishing modern civilization never came into existence. Alcohol is unfairly demonized. Before modern purification methods, mixing with alcohol was THE most effective way to produce clean, drinkable beverages.

    Without beer and wine human society would not exist. That’s a fact.

    The reason the LDS church didn’t complain is probably because they’re now invested in liquor. I don’t know this for sure, they’re financials are completely opaque.

  • Old Beezle

    @ Jeff:

    As much fun as it is to say “it’s the money!”, it’s not exactly the money.

    What do you think is the reason?

    you’re being disingenuous if you declare it’s the church or even groups of active Mormons that pushed for these changes because they’re putting money ahead of their beliefs

    I wouldn’t even necessarily say “pushing for changes” either. It’s more like turning a blind eye to the gentiles and their wine-bibbing. It’s just interesting timing that they would choose to back away from their hardline position against alcohol during a recession…if that doesn’t point to money, then why would they decide to update their religiously-motivated outdated laws now?

  • Ron in Houston

    I’ve lived in Texas long enough to remember when all the stores were closed on Sundays. The only open stores were grocery stores and they had to partition off items that were forbidden to be sold on such a “holy” day.

    My current rant is not being able to purchase alcohol on Sunday before noon. It’s such a fricking stupid law. I’ve offered a compromise to all the Southern Baptists here in Texas. If they let me purchase alcohol before noon on Sunday, I promise (cross my heart) to not show up drunk at their church.

  • So, I live in downtown SLC, so I have a bit of insight here.

    The reasons are economic, it’s undeniable. But it’s also more complex than just the recession.

    You see, the LDS church owns a HUGE chunk of land downtown on which they’re builing the City Creek Center, a mixed use faciliity that includes what will be the largest shopping center in the state.

    When the big chain restaurants started to pass on the facility because the church was planning to forbid alcohol sales on site, suddenly the tune changed, the church relented, and decided to allow alcohol at City Creek.

    Now, it’s my contention, and it is just my contention as I have no real evidence for this, that the church realized they now had a direct financial stake on alcohol sales, and decided that, “Hey, it’d be good for tourism!” and suddenly the story changed.

  • FYI: anyone interested in the new laws (in which there was a lot of give-and-take), here’s a quick summary:


  • mikespeir

    Before modern purification methods, mixing with alcohol was THE most effective way to produce clean, drinkable beverages.

    I’m not unaware that this was true, at least where there wasn’t a ready supply of fresh water. But what of today? Can anyone seriously say that, weighing the many negatives versus the few positives, alcohol in society isn’t a net loss?

  • As a Utah resident for over 20 years now, I welcome the changes, even if there were some unwelcome compromises (new eateries obtaining a liquor license must prepare all drinks in the back and not in the view of customers). It will be nice to be served a drink directly across the bar at a Chili’s.

    As for mikespeir’s wishing there were no alcohol, this wish can also be applied to many other things. What is it that makes alcohol worse than say, fattening foods, which lead to obesity if over-consumed? Over consumption of anything is not healthy. It’s called moderation and I would venture to guess that most people that drink alcohol practice moderation.

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