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.