In Utah, stage set for rematch over liquor rules

FILE - Manager Dustin Humes holds wine bottles in a small room which is out of the view of patrons at Vivace Restaurant Monday, Feb. 26, 2013, in Salt Lake City. Utah lawmakers had considered repealing a law that requires restaurants to mix alcoholic drinks out of view from patrons. Commonly known as “Zion curtains,” the mandate went into effect for restaurants in 2010 as part of a compromise when lawmakers lifted a mandate for bars to operate as members-only social clubs. The rule does not apply to restaurants that opened before 2010. The House passed a bill that keeps the practice of "Zion curtains" in place and the bill now heads to the Governor's desk. Restaurant owners and tourism officials say the law is unnecessary and hinders tourism. But some lawmakers say that removing the mandate could encourage underage drinking and influence customers to drink too much. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

A Utah lawmaker proposed scaling back some of Utah’s famously strict liquor laws just days after the Mormon church urged legislators to keep existing regulations in place.

A measure made public late Friday by Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, would let bartenders pour and mix alcoholic drinks in plain sight instead of back rooms or behind partitions. It would also allow customers at restaurants to order an alcoholic drink without first declaring their intention to eat.

The law requiring drinks be made behind partitions has come to be known as the “Zion curtain” in a nod to Utah’s legacy as home to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

A proposal to get rid of the rule died in the Senate last year. It likely faces significant odds this year, especially in light of the Mormon church coming out last week with a hefty multimedia policy statement drawing a line against efforts to ease up on liquor restrictions.

Lawmakers returned to the state Capitol on Monday for their annual legislative session, which lasts five weeks.

Powell said Monday he decided to bring the bill forward after meeting with owners and workers in Park City’s restaurants and resorts, as well as voters in his district. They told him visitors question what’s going into drinks when they disappear and that navigating the barricades is a headache for servers.

Powell, a member of the Mormon church, met recently with church leaders, who told him the two rules he wants to scrap are key elements in curbing irresponsible drinking. Powell shares that end goal, but said he doesn’t think the current rules assist it.

He fears that such restrictions prevent people from visiting the state’s attractions, which include world-class ski runs and ample convention center space. The rule forcing servers to ask customers whether they plan to eat before they can have a glass of wine or beer leads to very awkward conversations, he said.

“The servers don’t know how really to ask that properly sometimes without offending people,” said Powell, an attorney who has been in the legislature since 2009. “It’s something they’re not used to in other places.”

The new proposal from Powell echoes cries from Utah’s restaurant, bar and tourism industries who have successfully lobbied lawmakers to slowly loosen Utah’s rules governing the sale of beer and alcohol in recent years.

Melva Sine, the president of the Utah Restaurant Association, said current laws hurt tourism revenues because they paint an unflattering portrait of Utah and confuse visitors who happen to order a drink here. She’s pleased Powell’s proposal tackles the restaurant rule, she said, because she thinks it unnecessary.

“When they put their name on a reservation or a list or they just take a seat,” she said, “they’re intending to dine.”

In its statement last week, Mormon church leaders said the state’s “reasonable” alcohol restrictions aren’t strange and effectively curtail binge and underage drinking and DUIs while still allowing people to drink responsibly. Leaders contend current rules are “closely tied to the moral culture of the state” and prevent the state falling into an “alcohol culture.”

Experts have said the new webpage, which features a video interview with one of the faith’s top leaders, could have a chilling effect on efforts to change state liquor laws this session since the church is such a powerful political force. The majority of Utah legislators are Mormons and an estimated two-thirds of the state’s residents belong to the faith.

Avoiding alcohol is a fundamental part of being considered a fully practicing member of the Mormon church, religious experts say. Those who drink alcoholic beverages can’t worship in temples and face social stigma.

D. Todd Christofferson, of the Quorum of the Twelve, the church’s second-highest governing body, said in the video that church leaders are not proposing banning alcohol and don’t want to impose its tenets on the entire state. But, he said, the state’s current laws strike the right balance between allowing people to drink while limiting social costs of alcohol abuse.

Powell acknowledges that as it stands now, the bill has little chance of clearing its biggest hurdle: approval from the state Senate. So far, in 2014, no senator has signed on to back Powell’s version in that chamber. But Powell says he hopes the two houses will reach some kind of compromise on the proposed measures.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser said Monday he doesn’t think there’s an appetite for these proposals among Senate Republicans, but stopped short of voicing opposition to the measure because he hasn’t seen it yet.



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Associated Press writer Michelle L. Price contributed to this story

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