When the writers of the 2002 Reese Witherspoon rom-com Sweet Home Alabama wanted to illustrate the gap that had grown between a cosmopolitan bride-to-be and the rural backwater from whence she fled, they brought a kid into a dive bar. The protagonist, Melanie, walks in, sees an old high school classmate babe-in-arms, and delivers the line above like it was the ultimate cultural divider.[i]
The Federalist beat me to the punchline here. Last October they published an article proclaiming that “Baby in a bar” is now a “lifestyle, not a laugh line”. The shift was led, of course, by people more similar to Witherspoon’s urbanite than her rural classmate. Hip Millennial parents have altered the narrative around parenting and alcohol, helped along by the craft movement’s brighter, more family-friendly bar atmosphere. 15 years after the movie’s release, it’s Melanie, not her former classmate, who seems like the weird one. The change has meant that parenting is just a little less isolating for many than it used to be. As the article puts it:
“I cannot tell you how many young-mom friends of mine have referenced this scene as we talk about our adventures juggling life, friends, work, and family. Often, their maiden voyages outside the house with the baby are a boozy brunch with friends or a Thursday happy hour with a teensy newborn strapped to their chests. Whether they imbibe or not, the experience is a mark of a return to some normalcy and a declaration that they can, indeed, manage several different things at once in this new phase of life.”
A consistent theme of this blog is the law’s attempt to keep up with exactly this kind of changing social mores. With that in mind, let’s take a very quick look at laws about kids in bars, and how they have changed in recent years. I initially tried to unearth the laws on this subject for all 50 states—like I did for the Blue Laws article—but that proved to be downright masochistic, even for me. Where there is legislation about this issue, it’s convoluted, and many states don’t seem to address it at all.[ii] Instead, I will describe the laws generally, with a few choice examples.
These laws tend to take one of two forms, depending on the class of license. For a bar, the laws either forbid a minor from being there at all, or limit the hours they can be there, or demand that they be accompanied by an adult. In a restaurant, some states require that the bar (or, more accurately, the “drink preparation area”) be separated from the dining room. In practice, this can get complicated. And silly.
Take Washington State. Washington does not allow minors in “tavern”-licensed establishments (beer/wine only bars), allows minors in “nightclub”-licensed establishments only in areas where alcohol is not sold or consumed, and allows minors in “restaurant”-licensed establishments if there is a barrier between the dining area and the bar. Essentially, if you want to be allowed to serve families, you need the restaurant license, which means you need to offer several complete meals—complete, that is, by state legal standards. For a while this apparently had pretty funny consequences. Standard fare like sandwiches and pizza didn’t cut it, but a Lean Cuisine fit the bill just fine, so some places would keep a number of TV dinners in the freezer to ensure compliance.[iii] The law was changed in the last few years, with pub grub added and frozen meals quite specifically removed.[iv]
The thing is, that little law change described above is about the norm in terms of actually altering rules to match the shifting cultural norm of families and bars. Washington still has the same basic laws in place (laws, I might add, that seem rather contrary to what I know of Northwest culture), as do other states. So why haven’t there been more changes?
I see two major reasons. First, as noted above, many states never addressed this issue in the first place. Bars generally take care of that themselves, with house rules designed to prevent accidentally serving a minor by prohibiting them from the premises in the first place. In many cases, those house rules have adapted to changing customer expectations, without government ever needing to be involved. Second, as also discussed above, the craft movement is highly linked to this issue, and many micro-producers and brewpubs are operating under licenses that were created in the last few decades, and that have little or nothing to say about minors’ access to the premises. These licensees are often held to more limited hours or other restrictions that naturally make them less appealing to an underage drinker and more appealing to a family. This makes them rather ideal on this particular issue—a space in which mom can regain that sense of normalcy, without endangering the youths.
As for the restrictions on older license types, there is still a substantial and vocal group of activists that insists that physical separation from the world of alcohol is the best way to prevent underage and problem drinking. As powerful as the new European-esque perspective seems in certain corners of the country, it is not pervasive, and lawmakers have to balance the economic benefits of liberalizing this kind of liquor law with the political cost of pissing off moral interest groups. Frankly, while it does seem as though some laws—like Washington’s—could use some adjustment, this system is working well in many places. Establishments can now choose from a number of licenses, giving them more choice than ever about what kind of clientele they want to serve. A dive bar can be a dive bar, kid-free. A country brewery can feel free to let little ones run through the fields while mom and dad watch from a lawn chair, beer in hand.[v] The law is changing to meet the baby-in-bar lifestyle, just not in the way you might think.
I saved the impress-your-friends trivia for the readers that made it to the end. Turns out, it probably was not actually legal for that Sweet Home Alabama baby to be in that bar. Alabama’s standard bar license, the “Lounge”, forbids licensees from admitting minors.[vi] Even if they’re still on the tit, you can’t actually take them everywhere… at least not legally.
[i] Spoiler alert: she eventually comes around to the rural backwater way of life.
[v] General liability law, of course, not being the subject of this blog.
[vi] Interestingly, this part of the Alabama code appears not to have been updated since 1980, before the legal drinking age was raised, so a “minor” is anyone under 19. There may be an ABC rule expanding that to anyone under 21 that I just haven’t found. See Alabama Code §28-3A-11.