The effort to do away with Utah's private club law received a major boost Wednesday, as LDS Church officials told Republican leaders they would be amenable to an alternative put forward by Utah's hospitality industry.
The pitch from Utah's bar owners would entail electronically scanning patrons' driver licenses to prevent underage individuals from entering bars or clubs and eliminating Utah's unusual private club law.
During a lunch meeting at the church headquarters, church leaders told legislative leaders they like the idea of electronic verification, said House Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara. Senate Majority Leader Sheldon Killpack, R-Syracuse, confirmed that leaders favored the idea, but it was not specifically discussed in lieu of private clubs.
Senate President Michael Waddoups said the church's primary concerns were similar to his: limiting underage drinking, alleviating over-consumption and stopping drunken driving. Waddoups said he asked about the potential for the electronic identification checks.
"They were receptive to that idea and wanted to encourage us to keep looking in that direction," said Waddoups. "I don't know if that goes all the way to solve the issue" but the senator said he plans to keep exploring the possibility."
Clark said his interpretation was that private clubs would not be an issue for the church if it felt that scanning the licenses addressed its concerns about underage drinking.
David Morris, owner of Piper Down Pub in Salt Lake City and a member of the Utah Hospitality Association, said the church's openness to the digital verification is important for a proposal that "makes sense for this state."
Scott Trotter, spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said that, as is the tradition, lawmakers met with church representatives and the issue of alcohol regulation was briefly discussed.
"However, private clubs were not. The church took no position on any legislation, but expressed its long-standing concerns about limiting overconsumption, reducing impaired driving and elimination of underage drinking," Trotter said in a statement.
The meeting was attended by Bill Evans, the church's lobbyist; several members of the public affairs department; and Elder Quentin L. Cook, a member of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles; members of the First Quorum of the Seventy; and Bishop H. David Burton, the presiding bishop for the church.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has said for years that Utah's private club law -- which requires every patron in a bar to pay a fee and register annually as a member of the club, or to be a guest of a member -- should be repealed because it is harmful to tourism. But he has turned the heat up on the issue in recent months.
At his monthly KUED news conference last week, Huntsman said his goal was to "bring ourselves into the 21st century," and he did not know what the church's position was on any of the proposed changes to alcohol policy.
He did, however, suggest that increasing the liability caps for bars and clubs if intoxicated patrons leave the establishment and caused an accident might be part of a workable compromise.
Clark said the church officials also supported the increased liability cap.
Morris said the state's liability caps are high enough -- $1 million per incident -- and raising them higher would make it impossible for establishments to get the necessary insurance.
"A million bucks is plenty. It's already stretching us as it is," he said.
Also discussed by GOP legislators and LDS Church officials Wednesday were the following:
City Creek » The church said it has no plans to postpone work on its City Creek development, the largest construction project in the state.
Same-sex couples » Officials did not specifically address a series of proposed "Common Ground" bills that would extend some rights to same-sex couples, except to refer lawmakers to their previous statements on the topic.
Immigration » The LDS leaders reiterated their concern that the state enact a "compassionate" immigration policy.
The LDS Church, whose members include a majority of Utahns and more than 80 percent of state legislators, has always had a powerful voice on state alcohol policy. The faith worked to defeat a "liquor by the drink" initiative in past decades, signed off on the demise of mini-bottles in the 1980s and traditionally has had a big influence on any major legislation involving consumption of alcohol, which it considers a sin.