LDS Church silence on liquor licenses does not equal approval, DABC commissioner says

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SALT LAKE CITY -- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is apparently weighing in on liquor license applications without explicitly weighing in.

The Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission modified its prior stance that silence from a community location like a church or a school was essentially consent on a liquor license application for a business located nearby. It was brought up as the DABC commission considered wine/beer license requests for an Even Stevens restaurant in Logan and a La Frontera restaurant in St. George.

Under Utah law, a liquor license applicant located within 600 feet of a community location like a park, library, church or a school requires consent or denial by that entity, as well as public comment. To get a variance, there are higher burdens -- including an applicant showing an "unmet need" for alcohol.

Even Stevens' restaurant in Logan is located across the street from the LDS Church's tabernacle. La Frontera's new St. George restaurant is 384 feet from a Mormon chapel.

A map showing La Frontera in St. George and its proximity to an LDS chapel. (Image by Russ Slade, FOX 13 News)

A map showing La Frontera in St. George and its proximity to an LDS chapel. (Image by Russ Slade, FOX 13 News)

The LDS Church has been silent on both applications. La Frontera manager Terry Montano said customers have been repeatedly asking for a beer with their orders, and she was optimistic about being granted a license.

"I thought no response is basically a good sign for us because they aren't approving, but then they aren't denying that," she said.

In the past, the DABC has both granted and rejected applications based on input from the church. At recent meetings, the DABC commission adopted the viewpoint that silence was tacit approval.

"I know in times before we have given licenses thinking that because the church is silent that they were not opposed," DABC commissioner Olivia Vela Agraz said Tuesday. "So this is something new?"

"This is," DABC commission chairman John Nielsen replied. "It's my understanding they made it clear to us the fact they say nothing does not imply neutrality or agreement."

In an interview with FOX 13, Nielsen said the legislature did not interpret that silence differently -- the LDS Church did.

"That's their view and I think it's probably a correct legal view, too," he said.

Nielsen acknowledged that in the past, the DABC commission took a different view, but insisted the LDS Church was not telling them what to do.

"No, they've just clarified what they believe the law is and I think they're correct with that," he told FOX 13.

The DABC Commission at its monthly meeting on Tuesday. (Image by Pete DeLuca III, FOX 13 News)

The DABC Commission at its monthly meeting on Tuesday. (Image by Pete DeLuca III, FOX 13 News)

To get a proximity variance, restaurants have a higher burden to show that "unmet need." In Even Stevens' situation, they're across the street from an LDS tabernacle and there are other liquor licensees nearby. La Frontera's neighbor in St. George also has a license, which can work against it.

Even Stevens Chief Operating Officer Michael McHenry told the DABC commission the city of Logan contacted them, encouraging the sandwich shop to move in on the Main Street location. Even Stevens was previously denied a license for its Ogden location because it was located across the street from the LDS temple there.

The DABC seemed willing to try to find a way to grant a proximity variance. At Tuesday's meeting, DABC Compliance Manager Nina McDermott offered to meet with Even Stevens and La Frontera to find ways to address the "unmet need" and other issues required under the law. The commission agreed to delay any action until next month.

The LDS Church had no comment on the variance requests, but pointed to state law that triggered the special criteria if a community location does not give written consent.

Utah law on proximity variances, from the DABC website.

Utah law on proximity variances, from the DABC website.

Nielsen said this was not a situation of church influencing state policy.

"It has nothing to do with church and state issues," he told FOX 13. "It's strictly an interpretation of what the statute requires."

Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said Tuesday that lawmakers had in the past considered addressing zoning issues. He acknowledged it might become more of an issue with the prevalence of churches and schools in the state -- but pointed out it's not just with alcohol policy.

"It's happening with everything," he said. "There are a lot of industries that we have location issues, zoning changes."

Stevenson said until Tuesday, he was unaware of any problem but it was worth a discussion in the future about the law.