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`Freedom of Choice’ eatery faces Clean Air Act charges

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A Tooele County restaurant owner has been charged with violating the Utah Indoor Clean Air Act for allowing patrons to smoke indoors.

But Julie Versteeg, owner of Penney's Cafe in Stockton, a small town south of Tooele, says her customers are members of Freedom of Choice Inc., a nonprofit social organization incorporated in Salt Lake County in 1996.That means smoking at the cafe falls under social club exemptions to the Indoor Clean Air Act, she said.

The complaint was filed Friday in the Tooele Valley precinct of Justice Court.

"Everyone who comes in this door has membership cards," said Versteeg, adding that 300 members have registered since March. "It's a dollar a year, and it makes them members of every other facility."

Freedom of Choice claims more than 25,000 dues-paying members, said President Dan Cracraft. The smokers' rights organization is affiliated with 17 facilities, mostly restaurants, throughout the state of Utah.

"I pay the rent here, and I feel it should be my right whether smoking should be allowed," Versteeg said.

Smokers Unanimous - an organization similar to Freedom of Choice - was run out of business two years ago after the Cache County Attorney's Office filed charges against Mac's Cafe in Logan.

Following that prosecution, the state redefined what constitutes a social organization, requiring organizations to have by-laws, elected officials, regular meetings and a record of members instead of merely charging a membership fee.

Cracraft calls the guidelines "arbitrary" and said they are intended to eliminate organizations like his.

At a meeting Thursday, Freedom of Choice members vowed to pool their resources to help pay Versteeg's legal fees.