By L.A. Williams
Christian Action League
RALEIGH – North Carolina’s 2-year-old ban on smoking in restaurants and bars has withstood its second legal challenge with a unanimous Court of Appeals ruling issued Tuesday affirming that the law does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
“This is good news,” said Pam Seamans, executive director of the North Carolina Alliance for Health, a statewide coalition of health and wellness agencies that had fought for the ban’s passage in 2009.
The three-judge panel struck down a District Court ruling that had virtually made the ban unenforceable in Pitt County, where owners of four Greenville nightclubs had argued in court that the law was unfair because it applied to bars but not to private country clubs. The District Court had agreed, but Judge Linda Stephens wrote for the Court of Appeals that the statute’s verbiage should be interpreted to allow smoking only in private, nonprofit country clubs. The ruling, which concedes that the undefined term “country club” as used in the statue, is both “ambiguous and unclear” not only parses the smoking ban’s wording, but also examines at least three dictionary definitions of “country club” and explores the Legislature’s intent in passing the ban in the first place. The Court of Appeals concludes that the General Assembly was justified in exempting only nonprofit country clubs and not for profit non-country clubs, such as the bars in question.
Seamans had said last year that examples of organizations that generally qualify for the smoking ban exemption include “Moose Lodges, VFW clubs or other veteran or fraternal organizations.”
Chapel Hill attorney Adam Stein, who represented the Pitt County Health Department pro bono in the case, was apparently not surprised by the ruling.
“It is consistent with what the Court of Appeals said in the case from Guilford County, and it means that smoking in bars and restaurants is illegal and continues to be illegal,” he told the Greenville Reflector. “And I think that’s good for the health of the people in North Carolina.”
He was referencing the similar suit in Greensboro, where Gate City Billiards added “Country Club” to the end of its name prior to the ban’s taking effect in January of 2010 and then went to court arguing that the law violated the business owner’s rights by exempting nonprofit private clubs but not for-profit clubs. In that case both the District Court and the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the ban.
Seamans said that she is hopeful the legal challenges to the smoking ban are over, although the Greenville bars may appeal to the State Supreme Court. Because the ruling was unanimous, that court is not obliged to take up the case.
According to the Daily Reflector, the Court of Appeals ruling could take effect as early as April 9.
“Now these bars are going to have to adhere to the law,” said Seamans, who added that overall, the smoking ban is very popular across the state.
“A poll conducted a year ago showed that 78 percent were very supportive and pleased with the law,” she said. “People like it and have begun to expect their eating establishments to be smoke free.”
The Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, was pleased to learn of the Court of Appeals ruling.
“It’s just a shame that this handful of businesses want to defy the law when they could benefit much more from compliance,” he said.
Paul Stone, president and CEO of the N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association said recently that his organization did not oppose the passage of the ban because it applied across the board to all establishments serving food and alcohol to the public and helped protect patrons and employees.
“As it currently stands, restaurants and bars have not seen any lasting negative impact on their businesses as a result of the smoking ban going into effect,” he wrote in a letter to the editor of the High Point Enterprise published last month. “If fact, many establishments have experienced an uptick in business since January 2010… Our smoke-free law is fine just the way it is.”