Massachusetts churches get voice, but not veto, in locating liquor outlets

Massachusetts churches and schools have regained a voice in blocking the establishment of liquor outlets in their neighborhoods. Until last December, they could wield an absolute veto to the placement of bars or liquor stores in their vicinity. Then the United States Supreme Court stripped them of this authority.

The new Bay State measure signed into law earlier this month allows for objections from church or school officials during the licensing process. But it leaves the final decision in the hands of local licensing officials.

If these officials disregard opposition and grant a license, however, they will be required to state in writing why such permission would not be ''detrimental to educational or spiritual activities.''

Backers of the partial protection law view it as going as far as possible under the Supreme Court's new guidelines on banning new or transferred liquor licenses within 500 feet of a church or school.

In an 8-to-1 ruling, the high court held that the former law, which allowed churches and schools a veto, violated separation-of-church-and-state requirements of the US Constitution, since it delegated government authority to religious institutions.

At issue was not the question of whether the restriction of liquor establishments near a church or school should be allowed, but rather, who should exercise such controls.

The high court didn't consider the constitutionality of a ban on liquor within a specific distance of a church or school. But the justices implied that such prohibition would be acceptable, since it does not involve the delegation of decisionmaking. Some two dozen states have such laws.

A ban on new or relocated alcoholic-beverage outlets near churches was in effect in Massachusetts prior to 1970. Liquor interests, however, considered it overly restrictive. Lobbyists convinced state lawmakers to leave it up to the churches or schools in the neighborhood to decide on a case-by-case basis. If the veto was not exercised, the license was granted.

The Massachusetts suit was brought by owners of a Cambridge restaurant, which had been denied a liquor license for 10 years due to the veto of a nearby church. In the high court ruling, it was noted that a substantial number of other liquor establishments had been permitted to operate in the area.

While the possibility of further litigation remains, opponents of the former statute, such as the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, appear satisfied with its replacement, or at least view it as preferrable to either no restrictions or an outright ban.

Besides Massachusetts, at least six states - Arizona, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, and Washington - have had laws providing some church veto power in granting of liquor licenses. Although similar in thrust, none of these statutes is identical to the one struck down in Massachusetts.

The Maine statute provides that no new alcoholic-beverage license (for on-premise consumption) can be granted if the establishment is within 300 feet of a church - unless the applicant has unanimous approval of the state liquor commission and written authorization from the pastor of the church.

Since this law was not at issue in the Supreme Court's ruling, the Maine law stands. There has been no move to change it, according to Lynn Cayford of the Maine Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages.

There is no indication that other states where churches have a direct role in liquor licensing in their neighborhoods, either through the process of approval or veto, have taken action following the Supreme Court ruling.

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