A tavern owner pleaded not guilty Friday to allowing customers to smoke in his bar, saying he refuses to eject loyal customers despite the state's tough new anti-smoking law.

Bill Ostrander, 70, faces what is believed to be the first trial challenging California's statute banning smoking in more than 35,000 bars and casinos."My wife asked me to please plead guilty and just pay the fine," Ostrander said outside the courtroom. "But I can't do that. I fought a war to keep this country free."

"They tell me I can't smoke in my own bar? The state didn't buy that bar for me. I worked hard to buy that bar."

A nonjury trial is scheduled for March 13. If convicted, Ostrander faces fines of up to $1,300 for allowing patrons to light up in his Almond Tree Lounge.

The law, which went into effect Jan. 1, bans indoor smoking at bars and casinos, except mom-and-pop bars that have no employees and taverns on American Indian reservations.

"I did not break the law. I did what the law requires," Ostrander told reporters and a crowd of some 50 fellow tavern owners who showed up at Placer County Municipal Court to support him.

He said he put up "No Smoking" signs and made his customers sign a statement that says it's illegal to smoke in the bar. Beyond that, he said, "It's not my place to kick 'em out."

Lawyer Larry Kazanjian said he will argue that Ostrander has obeyed "both the spirit and the letter of the law" by making reasonable efforts to notify customers of the smoking ban.