Federal judge dismisses Utah liquor lawsuit

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 12:06 PM

Josh Loftin

SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit Monday challenging Utah’s prohibitions on drink specials and limited bar licenses unless the attorneys for bar and restaurant owners clarify their arguments.

U.S. District Court Judge Bruce Jenkins gave the Utah Hospitality Association 20 days to amend its lawsuit but made it clear the lawsuit cannot proceed without stronger evidence about the negative impacts on businesses.

Additionally, Jenkins said while an assertion in the lawsuit about undue influence on state lawmakers from lobbyists for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was “interesting,” more proof is needed to explain how it crossed the line of free speech.

The hospitality association had requested that lawmakers be prohibited from taking input from church officials on liquor laws.

More than 60 percent of the state’s population belongs to the LDS Church, which requires its members to abstain from alcohol. More than 80 percent of the state Legislature is Mormon.

The lawsuit was prompted by changes made in 2011 to the state’s liquor laws that, among other things, limits to 2 liters the size of a “heavy beer” container that can be sold in state liquor stores.

Retailers can sell only light beer, with less than 4 percent alcohol by volume.

But it was the ban on drinks sold at a “special or reduced price” that caught the ire of Utah’s bars, along with new limits on coveted liquor licenses. The quotas are tied to municipal population counts and the number of police officers available to enforce alcohol offenses.

While happy hours at bars have been banned for years in Utah, the hospitality association’s attorney, Lisa Marcy, said the 2011 changes “don’t allow happy days, happy weeks or happy years.”

It’s so confusing for bar owners that some fear they can’t even reduce prices to adjust to the market.

Amendments will be made to the lawsuit to focus more on the aspects of the law that limit competition, Marcy said.

“I think (Jenkins) was saying there were too many conclusions and not enough facts” in the lawsuit, she said.

As for the influence of the LDS Church, Marcy agreed they needed stronger evidence of coercion.

“It’s a dramatic allegation. It’s something we know happens, but we can’t prove it,” she said.

The confusion about prohibitions on drink specials was underscored by Assistant Attorney General Kyle Kiser, who said there is nothing in the law preventing bars from lowering prices from day to day.

Without that prohibition in the law, the lawsuit is pointless.

Whether the LDS Church pressured lawmakers was also pointless, Kiser said, because many interested groups lobbied legislators about liquor legislation. To block the church from speaking out on the issue would trample their rights to free speech, he said.

“They may want an impenetrable wall” between the church and the Legislature, Kiser said.

“But what they want to build is far worse. It would separate legislators from their constituents.”

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