PORTLAND, Maine – A beer distributor says Maine is being a Scrooge by barring it from selling a beer with a label depicting Santa Claus enjoying a pint of brew.
In a complaint filed in federal court, Shelton Brothers accuses the Maine Bureau of Liquor Enforcement of censorship for denying applications for labels for Santa's Butt Winter Porter and two other beers it wants to sell in Maine.
The dispute recalls a similar squabble last year when Connecticut told Shelton Brothers it had problems with its Seriously Bad Elf ale.
"Last year it was elves. This year it's Santa. Maybe next year it'll be reindeer," said Daniel Shelton, owner of the company in Belchertown, Mass.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday, contends the state's action violates the First Amendment by censoring artistic expression.
But the state says it's within its rights. The label with Santa might appeal to children, said Maine State Police Lt. Patrick Fleming. The other two labels are considered inappropriate because they show bare-breasted women.
"We stand by our decision and at some point it'll go through the court system and somebody will make the decision on whether we are right or wrong," he said.
The lawsuit was brought by the Maine Civil Liberties Union, which says the beer labels are entitled to First Amendment protection.
"There is no good reason for the state to censor art, even art found on a beer label," said Zachary Heiden, staff attorney for the MCLU.
The label for the English-made Santa's Butt Winter Porter features a rear view of a beer-drinking Santa Claus sitting atop a barrel. The beer's name refers not only to Santa's ample backside, but also to the barrel. In England, brewers once used a large barrel called a "butt" to store beer.
Maine also denied label applications for Les Sans Culottes, a French ale, and Rose de Gambrinus, a Belgian fruit beer.
Les Sans Culottes' label is illustrated with detail from Eugene Delacroix's 1830 painting "Liberty Leading the People," which hangs in the Louvre and once appeared on the 100-franc bill. Rose de Gambrinus shows a bare-breasted woman in a watercolor painting commissioned by the brewery.
In a letter to Shelton Brothers, the state denied the applications for the labels because they contained "undignified or improper illustration."
The state reviews between 10,000 and 12,000 applications a year 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, Fleming said.
"Basically, the standard we use is what are people going to see walking up and down a store aisle," he said.
Shelton said his company filed a lawsuit against the New York State Liquor Authority last month after it denied his applications for six holiday-themed beer labels, including Santa's Butt Winter Porter. The state changed its mind but the lawsuit is going forward, he said.
In years past, the company has had labels challenged in a few states, including Ohio, North Carolina and Missouri, he said.
States have the power to regulate alcohol through the 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition in 1933. "But I don't know where they get the idea they can ignore the rest of the Constitution," Shelton said.