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Deseret News
FILE: A bartender serves up an alcoholic drink at the Red Rock Restaurant and Brewing Pub in downtown Salt Lake.

SALT LAKE CITY — GOP Senate leaders weren't ready Thursday to back proposed legislation to do away with the so-called "Zion Curtain" that shields restaurant customers from alcoholic drink preparation while strengthening other liquor laws.

"I think sometimes we talk about issues like that as if they are somehow not working, and I think our alcohol laws have served us extremely well," Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams told reporters at the Senate's daily media availability.

The Layton Republican said "sensationalizing" the pouring and mixing of alcoholic drinks in a way that makes drinking appear to be "appropriate, enjoyable fun" to children is "a problem to me, and I think a problem to a lot of people in Utah."

Adams said he's proud of the state's alcohol laws. He credits those laws as well as "our social norms" for Utah's low alcohol abuse rates. Many Utahns belong to the LDS Church, which teaches members to abstain from alcohol.

Adams said he is not willing to commit to supporting the bill that House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, announced earlier this week was being drafted to remove the liquor shield requirement and make other changes in the liquor laws.

Those include increasing the markup of state-controlled alcohol sales, establishing adults-only seating adjacent to restaurant bar areas, and tougher regulations intended to reduce drunken driving, and underage and binge drinking, he said.

Wilson said Thursday his bill is far from a done deal.

"I think there's a high potential it's got some rough waters ahead," he said. "There will be a bill, and if the Zion Curtain doesn't come down, there are things that still need to be addressed."

Wilson said he believes the right policy does mean doing away with the liquor shields but if there isn't support for that, other issues such as the need for better labeling on alcohol products sold in retail stores need to be dealt with.

"We have irresponsible behavior right now in our distributors and retailers in that area and it needs to be addressed," he said, citing instances where the products were confused with soft drinks and served to underage drinkers.

Wilson said the sale of such products may have to be limited to state liquor stores.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser said at the media availability that despite Utah having some of the best liquor laws in the country, "alcohol is still a problem in our communities, underage drinking, DUIs, binge drinking. It's still a problem."

The Sandy Republican said the liquor shield is nothing more than a separate preparation area, but it has been called a "Zion Curtain because of the either real or perceived influence the LDS Church has on alcohol policy here in the state."

The Senate leader said the intention of the barrier is to not "glamorize alcohol. And it's all about trying to have children not even begin to consume alcohol. It leads to all kinds of ills in our society."

Niederhauser said other states have liquor laws similar to those in Utah, such as the separate drink preparation areas required in Wyoming.

"We're not as backward as people think about alcohol policy," he said. Niederhauser said he wants to make sure there's a clear difference between what is a restaurant and what is a bar in Utah.

"I don't want restaurants being morphed into bars," Niederhauser said.

He said lawmakers are "not trying to restrict what we have today, but there's an environmental situation for the other people in the restaurant."

Niederhauser said he is waiting to see a draft of the bill.

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Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, predicted there will be "a really good debate" this session on alcohol policy. "We've kind of looked piecemeal about alcohol policy. … This year, we have an opportunity to take an overall look."

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said he supports the proposed bill, but efforts to remove the barrier must be combined with measures to ensure public safety and reduce underage drinking.

"You can look at ways that don't loosen our liquor laws but maybe modernize them or adjust them," Hughes told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards. "We have to find that careful balance."

Contributing: Dennis Romboy