PORTLAND, Maine – A Massachusetts beer importer has been granted permission to sell beers in Maine with labels showing Santa Claus and bare-breasted women.
The decision to let Shelton Brothers sell Santa's Butt Winter Porter and two other European beers reverses a decision last fall to deny the company's application to sell the beers in Maine.
After the denial, the Maine Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Belchertown, Mass., company in U.S. District Court in Portland accusing the Maine Bureau of Liquor Enforcement of censorship.
While welcoming the decision, owner Daniel Shelton said it's too late to sell the seasonal Santa's Butt beer because the holiday season is over. He said the lawsuit will go forward unless the state changes its rule allowing it to deny applications for beer labels because they contain "undignified or improper" illustrations.
"You can't have a law based on propriety and dignity. It's too vague," said Shelton.
By law, the state reviews between 10,000 and 12,000 applications annually for beer and wine labels. It typically denies about a dozen a year because they contain inappropriate language or nudity, or might appeal to children.
The label for the English-made Santa's Butt beer features an illustration with a rear view of a beer-drinking Santa sitting on top of a beer barrel.
The state also denied applications for Les Sans Culottes, a French ale, and Rose de Gambrinus, a Belgian fruit beer. Les Sans Culottes's label is illustrated with detail from Eugene Delacroix's 1830 painting "Liberty Leading the People," which hangs in the Louvre and shows a bare-breasted woman. Rose de Gambrinus shows a bare-breasted woman in a watercolor painting that was commissioned by the brewery.
Zachary Heiden, staff attorney for the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said the lawsuit will go forth. While the state has reversed itself on the three label applications, it hasn't changed the rules that allow it to deny labels it deems as "undignified or improper."
"We believe that's unconstitutional on its face," he said.
Chris Taub, an assistant state attorney general, said after a review of the case his office determined that a court would likely find the beer labels in question would be protected under the First Amendment.
Taub said his office is also looking at the rule about undignified or improper illustrations, but he denied further comment because the issue is in litigation.