SALT LAKE CITY – Getting into a bar in Utah is about to become a lot easier.
Gov. Jon Huntsman and state House and Senate leaders agreed Monday to eliminate the state's much-criticized private club system, which requires someone to fill out an application and pay a fee for the right to enter a bar unless he or she is the guest of a member.
Utah, with a government historically dominated by Mormon church members, is the only state in the country with such a law.
Huntsman has been pushing to eliminate the 40-year-old system in an effort to boost the state's $6 billion-a-year tourism industry and make Utah seem a little less odd to outsiders. The Utah Travel Industry Coalition expressed relief at the deal.
"I think it's great that it essentially says to tourists, to travelers, that you are welcome here and that we're excited to host you and Utah's a normal place," said Danny Richardson, the coalition's executive director.
Typically, a visitor to a bar currently can expect to pay at least $4 for a membership lasting three weeks or at least $12 for an annual membership. A separate membership is required for each bar and patrons can fill out an application at the door.
In exchange, the state's DUI laws will become more strict and people who appear younger than 35 will have their driver's licenses scanned before entering a bar to make sure they're 21 or older and their ID is real.
Lawmakers must approve the measure by Thursday, when the legislative session ends. Bars could open their doors to the public on July 1. They could choose to remain private clubs, but few are expected to do so.
"We're moving toward much greater normalization today of our alcohol policy," Huntsman said.
Another of Utah's quirky liquor laws is also on the chopping block — one that prohibits bartenders in restaurants from handing alcoholic drinks directly to customers sitting at the bar. Instead, they are separated from the customers by a partition and must walk around it to hand the drink to the customer.
The partition is popularly known as the Zion Curtain, a reference to Utah's religious history as the Land of Zion.
The private club system as it's known today and the Zion Curtain got their start 40 years ago. At the urging of the Mormon church, voters in 1968 killed an initiative to allow the sale of liquor by the drink in restaurants.
Subsequent changes to state law and federal court rulings combined to mold Utah's liquor laws into their current form.
About 60 percent of the state's population belongs to the Mormon church, which tells its members to shun alcohol. Huntsman and between 80 percent and 90 percent of lawmakers are church members.