Members and leaders of Medford's First Presbyterian Church sent letters to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission asking OLCC to deny the bar a liquor license — contending spirits, churches and children do not mix.

The Gypsy Blues Bar is almost ready to reopen in a new location in downtown Medford, but the bar owners are running into some stiff opposition from a church that operates a child-care center across the street.

Members and leaders of Medford's First Presbyterian Church sent letters to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission asking OLCC to deny the bar a liquor license — contending spirits, churches and children do not mix.

The church operates the Sarah Corson Child Care and Learning Center and first Presbyterian Preschool. The playground is across the street from the bar's 205 W. Eighth St. location, said Michael Hubbard, church administrator.

"I was concerned from the moment I heard about it," Hubbard said.

Owners Clay Bearnson and Robin Bittinger said they were surprised to learn the church is opposing their bar.

They said the building is legally zoned for use as a bar.

"I think we have every right to open," Bearnson said.

The pair operated what Bearnson called a "tight ship" with patrons in its former location near the corner of Riverside Avenue and Main Street.

"It's not like we're going to have a bunch of crazy psychos throwing bottles and taunting little boys and girls at the day care," Bearnson said. "At the old location, we didn't get going until 9 or 10 at night. If these kids are out at that time of night, they should be talking to the parents. Not us."

Hubbard said the welfare of the 175 to 200 children who attend the $2 million child care center is the church's primary concern.

"Alcohol and children do not mix. We have to maintain zero tolerance," said Hubbard.

Bearnson said his bar had an excellent reputation within the community and a respected clientele. The church is objecting on moral or spiritual grounds to his legitimate and legal business, he said.

"I think there's a reason behind separation of church and state, and this is it," said Bearnson.

The Rev. Joyce DeGraaff, First Presybterian's spiritual leader, said the church also has concerns about contact between bar patrons and people who use the church buildings. The church and its support buildings provide space for as many as nine different community groups during a typical week, including family oriented clubs, support groups and civic organizations.

"We are by no means against the consumption of liquor on moral grounds. However, it is my view that people who drink and drive and walk in the proximity of a bar often exhibit inappropriate behavior and impaired judgment. Furthermore, our young female staff walk to their cars after dark and are most concerned about who they might encounter," DeGraaff said.

Some of the people in the groups are participating in recovery programs. New anti-smoking laws will take effect in January and increase the likelihood of contact between bar patrons and those who are attending meetings at the church, Hubbard said.

The bar "will be turning people out onto the streets to smoke and that is going to bring out more people who are under the influence of alcohol," he said.

Katie Hilton, OLCC's regional manager, said the agency routinely sends letters to businesses and organizations such as churches, schools and health care facilities prior to licensing an establishment — and posts notices on the sites where liquor licenses are being sought — precisely to hear about community concerns.

The bar's license renewal application is being reviewed by Janet Ouellette, OLCC investigator, Hilton said.

The OLCC received the church's letters on Monday. The church must make its case against granting the license based on actual adverse impact or zoning issues, not moral or ethical reasons, Hilton said.

The OLCC will review all public opinions — including a pending recommendation from the city of Medford to grant or deny — and then make its determination, Hilton said.

If the license request is denied at the Medford office, the applicant can appeal to Portland before an administrative law judge or even to the OLCC board, she said.

Bearnson said he and Bittinger have already sunk "tens of thousands of dollars" into the new site. They plan to open within the next month or so.

"I've already contacted my friend who is an attorney," he said.

Bittinger said if she and Bearnson had known the church was launching a letter-writing campaign, she could have asked her customers to send letters of support to the OLCC.

"I'm disappointed," Bittinger said. "Our clientele is respectful and tasteful. We're creating a socializing atmosphere where people can chill out and listen to the jukebox. Where you don't have to hang out with a bunch of drunk meatheads."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.