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Regulating bottle clubs, safeguarding human dignity

On Feb. 26, the General Affairs Committee of the Nebraska Legislature held a public hearing on LB747. This legislation would regulate entities known as bottle clubs, which essentially act as “bring-your-own-beer” drinking establishments that feature nude dancing and other sexually immoral behaviors.
LB747 was introduced by Sen. Theresa Thibodeau (Omaha), a member of St. Robert Bellarmine Parish. The legislation has broad support among legislators, but is seeking a path forward in the legislative process.
 
Historically, bottle clubs were locations where patrons could take their own private alcohol and store it at the club (for example, in a locker with keys). The bottle club would charge a fee for storage and the use of other items (for example, glassware, mixers). Eventually, the traditional bottle club business model fizzled out (pun intended!).
 
Before 2004, the state Legislature defined and regulated bottle clubs. These statutory laws required bottle clubs to hold a retail liquor license based on the types of beverages allowed for consumption. For over 50 years, the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission ensured compliance with liquor licenses. 
 
In 2004, the Legislature reformed retail liquor licenses and inadvertently created a legal loophole for bottle clubs. Unsurprisingly, some entities have exploited that loophole. Most prominently, a man named Shane Harrington has established bottle clubs in a handful of locations, including Elm Creek, Hastings and Omaha. Harrington’s bottle clubs require patrons to purchase a “membership” for a period of time (one-time or year-long) to enter the club. The club’s business model is based on members bringing their own alcohol and having access to so-called “adult entertainment” such as nude dancing and, arguably, illegal prostitution.
 
Bottle clubs pose numerous problems regarding public safety and morality. Regarding public safety, since bottle clubs are not regulated like other drinking establishments, there are no limitations on their operating hours. Normal drinking establishments, like bars, must close by either 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. But unregulated bottle clubs sometimes stay open until 5 a.m. This creates obvious dangers, such as late night/early morning drunken driving and public intoxication.
 
Further, since bottle clubs operate as “private” establishments, they are not required to be open to law enforcement. Other establishments with liquor licenses must allow law enforcement and Nebraska Liquor Control Commission staff members to enter their premises to ensure compliance with their liquor license. This allows local police to investigate for abuses, such as underage drinking. Such abuses go unchecked with unregulated bottle clubs.
 
Regarding morality, bottle clubs pose many problems, but space only permits listing a couple that deal specifically with the exploitation of women. First, state and municipal laws prohibit topless and nude dancers in places where alcohol is served. But because bottle clubs are not regulated as liquor establishments, they get around prohibitions on nude dancing and alcohol consumption. There also are concerns that this loophole encourages members to engage in physical contact with nude dancers in their sexually intimate areas, raising questions about prostitution.
 
Additionally, our state has undertaken significant efforts in the last several years to end human sex trafficking, but bottle clubs undermine these efforts. Just recently, Attorney General Doug Peterson spearheaded a coalition to “Demand an End” to human trafficking in our state. But bottle clubs raise questions about the level of human trafficking occurring at these establishments. 
 
For example, at the committee hearing, Harrington was asked how they know their women “adult entertainers” are not victims of sex trafficking. In trying to justify his actions by talking about how safely they treat the women who work for them, Harrington said, “We don’t let boyfriends in the club, or pimps.” Such a statement is disturbing because it seems to indicate that the owners are aware that victims of human sex trafficking are working in their clubs.
 
Ultimately, bottle clubs are bad for Nebraska. While it is unable to completely regulate their immorality, the Legislature can take a significant step in the right direction by passing LB747, which would again require them to hold a retail liquor license based on the types of beverages allowed for consumption. Pray for all those involved in the bottle club industry – St. Josephine Bakhita, pray for us!
 
Tom Venzor is executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, with headquarters in Lincoln. Contact him at tvenzor@necatholic.org.

 

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