Group Wants Mormon Church Blocked From Future Liquor Law Debates

Associated Press/November 1, 2011

Salt Lake City -- A trade group for bars and restaurants is asking a federal judge to block Utah legislators from considering input from the Mormon church when drafting future liquor laws.

The Utah Hospitality Association contends that considering the views of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is unconstitutional under federal laws separating church and state.

The claim is part of an amended lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City.

"We know the LDS church wields a lot of influence with the Legislature, especially as to liquor policies in this state," association board spokesman Kenneth Wynn said on Tuesday. "I think we've felt this for a long time. The church ought to butt out of state business ... we're just bringing it to the forefront."

Hospitality association attorneys originally filed the lawsuit in June. It targets Senate Bill 314, which bans daily drink specials and ties the number of liquor licenses to population totals and the number of state-employed police officers.

Association attorneys say eliminating discount pricing for alcohol amounts to price-fixing that harms both consumers and businesses. They contend such limits on competition in liquor sales and distribution places an unfair restraint on trade that violates federal antitrust laws.

Passed by lawmakers earlier this year, most of the new laws became effective in July. The portion of the so-called "quota system" tied to the number of law enforcement officers takes effect July 1, 2012.

Named as defendants in the lawsuit are the state of Utah, the governor and the Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control Commission.

The Mormon church is not a defendant, but the lawsuit cites examples of the Utah-based church's influence with lawmakers, including remarks from Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, who sponsored SB314, about the church's support for the bill.

The lawsuit also contends that a pair of church lobbyists had "warned" lawmakers that "there would be repercussions" if they disagreed with the church's position on the legislation. Court papers don't specify what those repercussions would be.

Mormons are counseled by church leaders against drinking all alcoholic beverages. However, the faith also owns some commercial properties, including the billion-dollar City Creek development in downtown Salt Lake City, and has not prohibited restaurants renting those facilities from seeking liquor licenses.

The majority of Utah's lawmakers are Mormon and Wynn, who was a director of the Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control Commission for 30 years, suggests the affiliation unfairly biases lawmakers in decision making.

The association has no paid lobbyist and board members were shut out of conversations about the bill with both legislators -- including Valentine -- and the governor, Wynn said.

Church spokesman Eric Hawkins declined to comment on the lawsuit on Tuesday and Assistant Utah Attorney General Joni Jones, who represents the department, said she has not yet read the amended complaint.

The state has 60 days to file a response to the lawsuit. Court records show no hearings are filed in the case.

Association lawyers also contend the state law has created a scarcity of liquor licenses that further restricts trade and hurts business development statewide.

By some estimates it could be up to two years before any new licenses become available.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified financial damages and asks a federal judge to toss out the law.

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