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The Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control commission said Tuesday it will make it tougher for businesses located near churches to get liquor licenses.

In recent months, the DABC has been more willing to grant liquor licenses in close proximity to churches, especially when leaders from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints didn't speak up at public hearings, or send a letter of opposition to city officials. The church inaction, argued one member of the commission, was considered "tacit approval."

But now the LDS Church has weighed in. "Through its legal counsel, the church has made it clear to us that the fact they say nothing, does not imply neutrality," liquor commission chairman John T. Nielsen said Tuesday.

Under Utah state law, bars and restaurants are prohibited from serving liquor within 600 feet of a church, school or park. A business, however, can apply for a variance — or exception — to the state law. It requires the local city council to hold a hearing to gather public comment.

When the Mormon church has vocally opposed the variance, the DABC commission has usually honored the church's position and denied the liquor license. But when there has been limited or no opposition, the DABC has allowed alcohol sales to proceed.

After consulting with its lawyers, the DABC commission says it will now require a business, per state law, to show a compelling reason why it should be able to serve liquor within the 600-foot limit of any church, school or park — even if there is no opposition to the request. Businesses must prove — through statistical data — that the license will satisfy an unmet demand in the area and there is no reasonable alternative.

The tighter restrictions already affected two Utah businesses: the Even Stevens sandwich shop, located across the street from the Mormon Tabernacle in Logan; and the La Frontera Mexican restaurant in St. George, which is located within 600 feet of a Mormon church. Both of the businesses had already received local approval for their liquor license request.

Owners from both restaurants had hoped to get liquor licenses on Tuesday. Instead, they will spend the next month building a case for their request.

As for the commission: "We will be considering higher standards that might make it more difficult for businesses (located near churches) to get the liquor licenses they desire," said Nielsen. "In proximity issues, the legislature intended that a high bar be met."

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