Beer and Bibles?
City Hall should let grocery stores sell alcohol, even if they are near a church.

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Right now, a city of Houston ordinance prohibits the sale of alcohol within 300 feet of churches, public hospitals and most private schools, and within 1,000 feet of public schools and some private schools.

Why shouldn't Houstonians sell alcohol near churches or hospitals?

The question has been racking our brains since Chronicle reporters Mike Morris and David Kaplan wrote about Mayor Annise Parker's plan to relax regulations on alcohol sales near churches and hospitals, which is on the agenda for today's City Council meeting ("'Food deserts' encourage city to revisit rules on alcohol sales," Page A1, Monday).

Right now, a city ordinance prohibits the sale of alcohol within 300 feet of churches, public hospitals and most private schools, and within 1,000 feet of public schools and some private schools. The city ban on selling booze near schools makes some sense: Kids shouldn't be drinking, and proximity provides opportunity. With that policy goal in mind, the city provides an exception for restaurants near schools if they limit outdoor seating and don't advertise alcohol sales. Help prevent underage temptation, and your business is free to operate as normal. Seems like a healthy policy compromise. But what harm are we trying to prevent by prohibiting alcohol sales near churches or hospitals? We already have laws against noise violations or public drunkenness, but apparently there is something about churches and hospitals that merits stifling otherwise legal businesses. Behold, another example of city authority hijacked by ineffective moralizing. This ordinance serves no particular policy goal, and the regulation run amok threatens to keep businesses out of neighborhoods that need them the most. Nevertheless, bars don't garner much respect - but healthy families need grocery stores. Those very same stores, in addition to fresh fruits and vegetables, also sell wine and beer. In fact, that's where many of them make a good deal of profit. Ban alcohol sales, and you're often banning successful grocery stores.

Businesses in poorer neighborhoods already face many challenges, and our regulations on what stores can and can't sell only make things worse. At the same time, small liquor outlets can slip in to tiny storefronts just outside these zones of temperance. Full-fledged grocery stores, with their large property footprints, have fewer options. These unintended consequences threaten whatever good intentions exist in the city's alcohol ordinance.

From a coldly rational perspective, the city should treat churches and hospitals like any other business. If Houston wants to start zoning, a comprehensive plan would be a wiser choice than this patchwork prohibition. All of Houston, not just homes near churches, should benefit from a plan to address the problems that come from alcohol sales. But until that day, rewriting the alcohol ordinance to exempt grocery stores is good enough. The proposal at last week's City Council meeting moved the ball in the right direction, but its flimsy definition of grocery store may just flood neighborhoods with liquor, instead of leafy greens. City Council Member Steve Costello has said that he's working to ensure that the ordinance language only allows grocery stores. Proposed changes to the ordinance could include mandating a maximum limit on alcohol receipts, specifically prohibiting distilled liquor or banning on-site consumption.

Regulations should target harm. Houston's alcohol ordinance just targets businesses, whether good or bad. Lifting this barrier to grocery stores will mean more jobs, healthy food and businesses that contribute to neighborhoods - even if you can buy a six-pack near a church.