Alcohol, Central New York, downtown, Syracuse

Prohibition Era Law Prevents Some CNY Restaurants From Getting Liquor License

A NY State law prevents the sale of hard liquor within 200 feet of a church. NCC News reporter Dan Prager looks at the impact of this law on CNY restaurants and why it is still in effect ©2018 Dan Prager

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By Dan Prager SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC News) — Some Syracuse restaurants have come face-to-face with an 1892 law that is preventing them from serving hard liquor. The law says that no restaurant can get a liquor license if it is either within 200 feet of a church or 500 feet of three churches.

It is one of New York’s old Blue Laws, or a religious law that prohibits a leisure activity. Those laws came about when prohibition was still a popular idea among many Americans. Today many people, including restaurant owner Steve Morrison, believe it is a relic of the past.

“It’s so arbitrary because it only limits distilled beverages,” Morrison said. “I can still serve beer and wine, so what’s the point?”

Morrison is right. The law only prohibits hard liquor, not beer or wine, a rule that he finds strange. He says that as a Mexican restaurant, it’s hard to not have peoples’ favorite south-of-the-border drinks.

“[The first thing people ask] when they walk in here is ‘hey, can I get a margarita?’ So we have to sort of explain ourselves the whole time,” he said.

Syracuse has dozens of churches, mosques, synagogues, and other places of worship. Below is a map with each place of worship in red, along with nearby restaurants in orange, many of which are either close to or within 200 feet of one.

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Religious leaders do not all agree on the issue. While the church near The Mission (the Church of the Immaculate Conception) has told Morrison they agree with the law, the Park Central Church does not think the law is necessary in the 21st century.

“I don’t think the old Blue Laws make much sense anymore,” Park Central Pastor Andrew McTyre said. “There was a time where they had some impact, but that was a long time ago. Prohibition has passed, and it’s time we moved on.”

McTyre said that drinking is just a part of life, and he didn’t have any religious reason to prohibit these licenses.

“Jesus would’ve been in trouble, because he made several pots of wine for a wedding in Cana,” McTyre said, referencing the Biblical story where Jesus turned water into wine.

Despite this, the law is still in place statewide. Syracuse Common Councilor Joe Driscoll said he was surprised to find out that this law still existed, and said he would talk to state representatives about getting rid of the “prohibition-era” law.

“It won’t interfere with the Church’s ability to do business,” Driscoll said. “People can respectfully drink whisky in a quiet and respectful manner near a church and it should be no big deal.”

Until any laws are changed, Morrison is trying to make do with what he has. He is currently trying to argue the distance between The Mission and the nearby church, saying it’s actually 212 feet away. If that does not work, he says he will continue to do what he has been doing: improvise.

“You have to be creative…so we found a purveyor of wine-based drinks,” he said. “They’re not bad, but I wouldn’t say they’re great. We explain that we have wine-based margaritas, and lots of customers love them.”

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