Before I moved to Utah, people who lived here consistently warned me about Utah’s unorthodox laws around particular activities and substances. After I visited Utah before moving here, I truly began comprehending what I’d been warned about. I struggled to find a place to eat in downtown Salt Lake City because individuals under 21 could not dine at establishments designated as bars. Needless to say, this experience surprised me. I never had to worry about restaurants turning me away because of my age.
This strange law around age and dining is the rule, not the exception here in Utah. To order an alcoholic beverage in the restaurant or bar, you must also order food. You can also only purchase certain liquors in state-run liquor stores, which close on Sundays and holidays.
Furthermore, beer must also be 3.2% alcohol by weight or 4% by volume. Other states aside from Utah have strict alcohol laws. These laws limit an individual choice and liberty by not allowing a legal adult to purchase and consume a legal substance in a way that almost every other state would allow. Laws that inhibit liberty, one of the founding principles of our country, do not serve citizens well.
In an interview with Luke Garrott, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Utah and former Salt Lake City Council Member, he defined liberty as “this negative freedom, having a sphere of non-interference, where we are not coerced or restrained.” According to this definition of liberty, we can see Utah’s laws concerning alcohol do not uphold an individual’s liberty compared to other states.
If a patron at a bar wants to purchase beer without ordering food and the restaurant has no issue with that, why should the state step in and say “no”? Some would argue that establishments that serve alcohol and the consumption of alcohol, in general, damage the community; therefore, the state should step in and regulate both. When the state creates laws to regulate what some would frame as unproductive activities or substances, we often say they attempt to promote the common good.
It seems then that Utah views alcohol and establishments that serve them as not promoting the common good. Alcohol and establishments that serve it have brought people together to celebrate with each other for almost all of American history. If anything, establishments that serve alcohol only further serve the common good.
It’s certainly no secret that Utah has a high population of followers of The Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints who view alcohol as “not being for the belly.” Consequently, the LDS Church lobbies against alcohol at every turn.
For example, while serving on the city council, Professor Garrott said he attempted to change zoning rules to potentially build more bars and taverns. During the process, he experienced pushback from the LDS Church’s leadership. He said the LDS Church “did not think that the bars or taverns were assets to the neighborhood, and I was making an argument that they were because they are a place for people to meet and get to know each other.”
Given the sizeable LDS population in Utah, with 68.5% of the state’s population identifying as LDS, many state laws reflect the values of its large LDS population.
Federalism, local power and the ability for states to be laboratories of democracy contribute to making America so great.
Utah making these laws reflects the values of their population, which is a good thing. States can definitely make laws that reflect the values of their population — even if they seem slightly unorthodox to people outside the state. In a country as large and diverse as the U.S., states should make laws for their citizens instead of one-size-fits-all policies. But at the same time, that does not mean that we can’t criticize these laws.
When the laws created by states begin not to serve their citizens well, it becomes time for them to face opposition. Utah’s laws around alcohol and dining limit liberty and individual choice, which serve as core founding values of the U.S. In pursuit of promoting the common good, these liquor laws work against that cause.
We should thoughtfully consider how to change or reevaluate these laws to better serve the common good rather than work against it.