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Rolly: Why bother with LDS statement on booze?

Published January 25, 2014 1:48 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

LDS Apostle D. Todd Christofferson's public statement this week that affirmed the church's support of Utah's vast set of liquor laws begs the question: Why?

Christofferson's endorsement of Utah's restrictive laws on the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages gives ammunition to critics wanting to condemn the state as a theocracy.

It puts an exclamation point on the allegation that the church runs the state and its policies, especially pertaining to alcohol.

And if the public acclamation that Utah's oft-criticized liquor laws are done so with the sanction of the church puts the culture here in the crosshairs of the critics, it seems so unnecessary.

If the church wants Utah's liquor laws to stay the same, they will stay the same. If the church wants more stringent regulations on liquor sales and distribution, the church will get more stringent regulations on liquor sales and distribution. If the church wants a particular law loosened a bit, that law will be loosened a bit.

Like Lola in "Damn Yankees," when it comes to liquor legislation, what the church wants the church gets.

In the past, the church's desires when it comes to liquor laws were communicated in private to legislators, and legislators always got the message and dutifully obeyed. There was no need for a public spectacle.

Years ago, when Republican Norm Bangerter was governor, an exemption to Utah's open-carry law that would allow imbibing by passengers in chauffer-driven limousines and fun buses taking Utahns to Nevada casinos sailed through the Legislature.

It passed the House almost unanimously, then moved quickly through the Senate onto the board for final passage with no public opposition.

But on the last night of the session, two senators received calls from representatives of the LDS Church letting them know the church did not want the bill passed.

No public opposition from the church. No public reason given for concern.

All it took were private calls to two senators.

The bill was circled and it died on the board without a vote.

When former Democratic representative Grant Protzman undertook a year-long effort to overhaul Utah's liquor laws in the 1980s and, as part of his quest, received the approval of the LDS Church, the Senate introduced its own bill, identical to Protzman's. The only difference is that it was sponsored by Republican Senate President Arnold Christensen and every Republican senator signed on as a co-sponsor.

After all, if the church was for it, the Republicans wanted to own it.

The Senate bill, of course, was the one that passed.

Former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. pushed through his monumental proposal to do away with the private club requirement for bars selling booze so patrons didn't have to buy a membership to each establishment they entered.

That was a revolutionary idea for Utah and it was given little chance of success — until the LDS Church stated it did not oppose the bill.

That was like the kiss of the pope.

When a group of high-paid lobbyists attempted to defeat a bill that banned specialty alcoholic drinks like hard lemonade from grocery stores, they thought they had a fighting chance until the church let the Legislature know it approved of that bill.

That, one lobbyist said, was the kiss of death.

So why the need for a public statement?

Pressure from the tourist industry about the dearth of liquor licenses and from some local governments envisioning greater sales tax revenue with fewer restrictions have intensified the public debate about the liquor laws.

And a new breed of young legislators have publicly questioned why the state is in the liquor sales business at all.

So perhaps Christofferson's public statement was meant for the constituents of those legislators to let them know they should not wander too far from the reservation if they want to keep their jobs. —