Religious divide brewing in Utah beer debate

By Jason M. Adkins, Montana State University Billings

Recent efforts by a collaboration of brewers, beer distributors, and retailers to change Utah’s strict alcohol laws continue to showcase deep religious divides within the state, according to a recent poll sponsored by the Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. This is similar to the divide among Utah voters regarding the recently passed medical marijuana initiative that was opposed by many members of LDS Church compared to broader support among less-active Mormons, those affiliated with other religious groups, and the “nones.”

The poll, which consisted of 604 registered Utah voters (margin of error at ±4 percent for the sample as a whole) conducted from January 15-24, indicates only 23 percent of “very active” LDS (which is self-defined) support allowing sales of beer with higher alcohol content in grocery and convenience stores. Currently, retailers are limited to selling beer with a maximum 3.2 percent alcohol content, while stronger beer is sold only in state-owned and operated liquor stores.

Support for selling stronger beer increases dramatically among “somewhat active” and “not very active” LDS, with 58 percent of somewhat active and 74 percent of not very active supporting loosening the alcohol limits. The higher support for the somewhat and not very active group is not surprising, as fellow Religion in Public contributors Benjamin Knoll and Jana Riess indicated in their 2016 “Next Mormons Survey” that a quarter of Mormons have had an alcoholic drink in the past six months, with less-frequent religious services attendance correlating with higher rates of alcohol consumption. Support among Protestants for more liberal alcohol laws is strong at 66 percent, while 100 percent of Catholics and 83 percent of those who affiliate with “other” religious groups support retailers selling stronger beer. The “nones” overwhelmingly support loosening restrictions on beer sales with 91 percent in favor of change.

Support for the reform in general ranges across a four-point spectrum, with 28 percent of all respondents indicating they strongly support allowing for retailers to sell strong beer, 21 percent somewhat supporting it, 15 percent somewhat opposing the effort, and 30 percent strongly opposing the effort to change existing laws, with “don’t knows” comprising 6 percent of responses.

Beer

The LDS Church has not issued any recent statements in favor or opposing recent attempts to loosen restrictions on sales of beer by retailers. In 2008, however, the church issued a statement in response to efforts to reform laws governing bars by eliminating the “club membership requirement.” Part of that statement included: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that Utahns, including those who work in the hospitality industry, can come together as citizens, regardless of religion or politics, to support laws and regulations that allow individual freedom of choice while preserving Utah’s proven positive health and safety record on limiting the tragic consequences of overconsumption of alcohol.”

Just a few years prior to this statement, though, the LDS Church opposed efforts to loosen alcohol laws for the 2002 Winter Olympics that took place in Utah. No specific bill has been introduced to the Utah Legislature for the 2019 session at this time.

Jason M. Adkins is an assistant professor of political science at Montana State University Billings. Reach him at Twitter or visit his faculty website.

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