Back in the Theocracy

First, a question.  When does the Constitutional requirement for separation of church and state mean essentially nothing?

One answer:  When you live in a state where virtually all members of the state legislature are members of a single faith.  Or, as in my case, when one lives in the semi-sovereign theocracy of Deseret, more formally known as the state of Utah.

What reminded me of this, more forcefully than usual, was an official pronouncement the other day by the LDS Church.  The core of the declaration reads as follows:

“The Church is opposed to any legislation that will weaken Utah’s alcohol laws and regulations, including (1) privatization of the alcoholic beverage control system; (2) increases in alcohol license quotas; (3) permitting sales of heavy beer, wine and distilled spirits in grocery and convenience stores or allowing direct distribution of these products outside the state control system; and (4) any other proposals that would promote increased sales or consumption of alcoholic products in Utah.

“The Church also strongly supports maintaining the important distinctions between restaurants and bars. This includes retaining the current provisions that require the separation in restaurants of alcoholic beverage storage and dispensing functions from dining areas and patrons, the requirement of “intent to dine,” the 70%/30% food to alcohol ratio requirements for restaurants, and different hours of operations for restaurants and bars.”

This statement was issued exactly one week before the state legislature began its short annual session, and has actually generated a certain amount of controversy, even among members of the LDS faith.  Very few people disagree with the idea that the state, or any state, should have some regulations governing the sale of alcoholic beverages, but the degree of regulation varies greatly from state to state.  At one time in Utah, it was almost impossible to have a drink without a meal [and often not even then] unless one belonged to a “private club.”   So many establishments created “clubs” that any adult could join.  That requirement was eliminated a number of years ago, but a number of other seemingly senseless requirements remain on the books, including a population-based formula that makes it exceedingly difficult for restaurants to obtain liquor licenses and close to impossible for more than a comparative handful of bars/taverns to exist [to my knowledge there are only two in my home town, in an area of more than 50,000 people], a system that some claim begets hidden favoritism in awarding such licenses.  There is also the “Zion curtain” requirement – that the space in which drinks are prepared must be shielded from the view of all diners. There’s also a requirement that a diner must show intent to purchase food before obtaining a drink, and that a server may not provide a second drink until the first is entirely consumed. In addition, the importation of any alcohol from anywhere outside the state is prohibited, and all alcoholic products [with the exception of beers with less than 3.2% alcohol, which can be sold at grocery and convenience stores, and wines sold at local vineyards/wineries] must be purchased through the state liquor control stores or system.

You have a favorite wine from Sonoma or Napa?  Or anywhere outside of Utah?  If it’s not carried by the state stores, you’re out of luck.  No reputable vineyard or liquor outlet will knowingly ship alcohol to private citizens in Utah, Not only that, but several years ago, the state sent “observers” to watch Nevada liquor stores near the border, and those observers relayed the license plate numbers of Utah cars purchasing liquor… and those cars were stopped inside Utah, and their purchases confiscated.

Since I’m not a drinker and am, in fact, highly allergic to alcohol, all this doesn’t directly affect me, but my wife would like to occasionally sip certain wines, and it even takes me extra steps to send wine to my brother in Colorado – because the vineyard’s computers flag and question every order billed to a Utah address.

As a result of what many people feel are excessively stringent and unnecessarily burdensome regulations, there’s been a groundswell of popular pressure for additional reform of the state liquor laws. The result?  A proclamation by the LDS Church, which contends that it merely wants to keep alcoholism low in the state. Except that the regulations most people want changed won’t affect alcoholism.  Hard-core alcoholics aren’t going to order wines from out of state or order overpriced wines or cocktails at restaurants.  But certain name restauranteurs have decided to stay out of Utah… and there’s only one Trader Joes in the entire state.

Even more important than all that, though, is the fact that a church is openly dictating what the state laws should be on alcohol… and marriage… and sexuality – based directly on religious beliefs — and the state legislature doesn’t even have second thoughts about following those pronouncements.

16 thoughts on “Back in the Theocracy”

  1. Kathryn (@Loerwyn) says:

    It does make you wonder why the higher courts in the US haven’t been involved – you’d think with the mega-bucks that the major breweries take in (e.g. Buddweiser, Cools, etc.) that they’d have long-since established legal teams and even campaigns to overturn such legislature. I mean I’m a non-drinker, and I’m against the ‘glorification’ of drinking culture, but I don’t see how the current system is actually doing anything except adding unnecessary loopholes. It’s like they’re trying to stop people drinking by making it a fuss, rather than using any logical argument that doesn’t relate to the religious beliefs of the LDS Church.

    It’s the wishes of the few restricting the liberties of the many – I thought that was, essentially, what American culture was opposed to?

  2. The higher courts just weighed in on the equal right to marriage by same-sex couples, and the state is appealing that court ruling, naturally enough since the LDS Church has opposed same-sex marriage.

  3. John Prigent says:

    I’m not in the US, never mind in your State, but I thought that US laws require free movement of goods between States. Maybe subject to taxes, but a total ban?

    Just curious.


  4. Bob Vowell says:

    Back in 1999 I was transferred to SLC and lived there for 2 years. My coworkers from outside Utah and i were continually amused, and confounded by the seemingly irrational laws on the books in regard to alcohol.

    Now I’m in New Jersey and you could change out church for unions in you thoughts you would find many similarities when it comes to dictating laws in the state. Nothing changes aside from the trappings.

  5. CRM says:

    Some interesting philosophical and ethical points raised in this debate: If I believe some action is physically or morally harmful to someone else, how far should I go in preventing them from engaging in that act? At what point am I justified in using force to prevent that action? What kinds of force are justified–physical, moral persuasion, legal action? Is there a difference between someone causing physical harm to themselves, and someone causing what I believe to be moral or spiritual harm? What if the perceived harm extends beyond the individual committing the action?

    In most cases, I imagine few people would object to a private citizen physically restraining someone engaged in a suicide attempt, or in preventing something obviously and immediately dangerous to others. The extrapolations of this start seeming unclear to me, though. How far can a community go to prevent individuals from harming themselves? How do you distinguish between immediate and gradual, cumulative physical harm (eg second-hand smoke). Where there are strong differences in the perceptions of moral harm, how far can a democratic majority go in restraining the minority view?

    A lot of the debate around things like abortion, drug and alcohol control, gay marriage includes the assumption by one side that these things are spiritually and morally harmful to individuals engaged in them. I believe that many people who engage in these debates do so out of a genuine concern for the welfare of others.

    But, if you don’t share my beliefs about what is spiritually or morally wrong, how far can I go in trying to help you? How far can I go in promoting, through the democratic process, ways to prevent you from, as I see it, hurting yourself? Is there some level of spiritual due diligence, after which I have to let you do what you want? How do we balance diametrically opposed views of what is harmful?

  6. And what about actions/legislation that has no effect in “helping” others, but is merely a reflection of a desire to enshrine beliefs in law?

    1. Kathryn (@Loerwyn) says:

      (Before I start, this is more in response to CRM, but going off Mr. Modesitt’s point)

      And this is exactly why the same-sex marriage, abortion, etc. debates are problematic. It’s not really based on anything except This Book Tells Me It’s Wrong Therefore It Is Wrong. It is not a sign of someone looking out for someone’s “spiritual health”, it is a sign of someone being unable to think for themselves, of someone who believes that their belief is more important than the belief of someone else.

      The other side of this argument is that the same people who wish to force their beliefs and lifestyles on others readily claim persecution and cry about being the victims of discrimination (going back to the inability to think for themselves, this is essentially hypocrisy), yet those who wish to live – say – in a same-sex marriage *in general* do not wish to limit the ability of the opponent to practice their beliefs or to live their own way. What they want is to enjoy the same rights and legal protection/status as those who live the ‘prescribed’ way, and in no way are they forcing their lifestyle upon others – i.e. they are not forcing other people to live in a same-sex union.

      The key aspect of the matter is the divide between Church and State. The Church might officially have a stance (which can be in contradiction to the stance of its followers), and that stance will generally be based on an interpretation of a holy text, whereas the State’s stance must be the protection and support of its denizens, irrespective of their theological or spiritual belief or beliefs, and that means its arguments for the denial of rights or services to select groups must be based on factual, solid, verifiable and logical grounds. There is no logical, factual or justifiable grounds to deny the right/act of marriage to same-sex couples in a secular society. The only objections come from religious groups, and those objections can rarely be considered to be based on evidence.

      This is not the same as, say, stopping someone from committing suicide. I don’t believe suicide should be considered a crime, but the willingness to go to such lengths is the result of, generally, a psychological crisis – whether it’s grief, social pressure (you find this a lot with younger people or those in the sexuality/gender minority groups), depression, etc. – and as such can often be treated or abated with care. I don’t know what the general procedure is for dealing with someone suicidal – in this day and age of ambulance chasers and litigation over someone sneezing (well, wouldn’t surprise me if it happened), I would think some people would be reluctant to help in case it costs them – but I would think that it was morally right and even encouraged to try and help them *away* from that situation. The issue of assisted death (which some call ‘suicide’) is a completely different issue again.

      But I think we’ve moved on from the point. A lot of the ways that religious groups or conservative people try to ‘help’ people from doing what they perceive to be harmful is to either find a cure (look up gay cure therapy if you wish, it’s nothing but psychologically damaging to the patient) or to make it either legally awkward (e.g. the UK’s stance on prostitution – it’s legal to be a sex worker, but you cannot solicit business) or to outlaw it. There is nothing positive or helpful about the ‘religious’ approach, because it criminalises a perfectly natural thing and it turns the social view against such acts, thus potentially making normal things seem morally wrong (which can lead to peer pressure, etc.), not to mention it is a case of a minority trying to dictate the lives of the majority.

      I also think there’s a difference between trying to criminalise homosexuality and the anti-smoking movements. Smoking is something genuinely harmful on many levels – it creates an addiction, it fills the body with harmful chemicals, it is also socially disturbing, because you’re inflicting it on other people with your smoke (not to mention the litter from disposing of cigarette butts). It isn’t a good thing, although some would argue nicotine can be. Homosexuality, however, has no more risk than any act of sexual congress between a heterosexual couple (we’ll put the HIV/AIDS stuff to one side, it’s a slightly different issue), and that’s assuming the couple has such urges, which – like in heterosexual couples – isn’t a given. It doesn’t harm society, it’s not a disease, it doesn’t impact anyone at all.

      I find this debate happens equally as frequently in the UK, by the way, although over here it’s generally the conservative/xenophobic press complaining about Islamic cultural/religious law.

      1. CRM says:

        Kathryn, I understand your position. It comes down to differing definitions of what “harm” is, including whether or not there is a spiritual component to human existence. These are issues that can be worked out between individuals fairly easily. In dealing with my circle of friends and acquaintances, it’s easy to say something like “please don’t bring alcohol to the dinner party at my house,” or “I’m uncomfortable with discussing your same-sex relationship” or whatever. I can make my position and feelings known politely without being confrontational. Once I’ve stated my opinion and the reasons for it, I can let the matter stand. Sometimes it means avoiding certain situations or activities; sometimes it may mean simply avoiding certain people. That’s life–everyone does that to some extent.

        The problem is extrapolating that to being a citizen in a democracy. If the majority of the community shares my beliefs, should that be the law? If not, why not? What are the fundamental rights that absolutely should be protected? We, as western societies, are generally in agreement about some basic level of food and shelter, and possibly medical care, being provided to everyone. We have some basic ideas about freedom of thought, speech, movement, private property, and so on. We try to keep our citizens safe. Exactly how and what levels of intervention the government should supply are matters of debate.

        So if a government wants to provide safety and security to its citizens, how does it define harm? Do we end up with an Asimov’s Three Laws kind of situation? When does an individual’s personal right to choose their lifestyle take precedence over the desires and standards of the community, with its democratically created laws?

        I don’t have an answer to this. I can’t come up with a good way to extrapolate from my individual values and beliefs up to a state or national government. I don’t know of any philosophers who have explicitly addressed this issue in a way that I’ve found satisfying. John Stuart Mills was of the opinion that individuals should be completely free to do what they want as long as they harm no one else. But what about parents restricting their children? Don’t they have a duty to protect and guard their children? When and how does that duty end? What about other friends and family members for whom I feel genuine love? The Christian ideal is to love your neighbor as yourself. At what point does my concern stop being good Samaritan and start becoming officious, nosy and offensive?

        And finally, I’d like to raise an objection to your statement “It is not a sign of someone looking out for someone’s “spiritual health”, it is a sign of someone being unable to think for themselves”. I firmly believe that anyone who makes a commitment to any belief system, whether religious or secular, should do it in a thoughtful manner, truly examining those principles and comparing them to other system before saying “This is what I choose to believe”. This is equally true of being a Christian, a Democrat, or an environmentalist.

        Anyway, I’m not trying to be confrontational. It’s just that I see a real problem in extrapolating from individuals to a nation, and in separating Church from State when both are made up of exactly the same individuals. All I can do is state my beliefs, and act on those beliefs and principles when I go into a voting booth.

        And my sense of irony wants to end this post by saying “God Bless”.

        1. Kathryn (@Loerwyn) says:

          But, generally speaking, you don’t get a choice of belief system. It’s drilled into you from an early age if your parents are religious, and – well – you’ve heard about those kids who are athiest in strong, religious families, no?

          The State has a duty to all citizens, irrespective of their religious or spiritual beliefs. It gives you the power and the right to live by your beliefs, but it doesn’t give you the power or the right to make others live by yours, even if yours are the majority in an area. Why? Because, as I said, it has a duty to all citizens.

          You’d tend to find that high-density religious areas tend to fit to the dominant belief system, as Mr. Modesitt has shown above. But that is not the same as the belief system actively deciding what can and cannot happen in that area. The LDS church should have no power or right to define the alcohol or marriage laws in the state of Utah, because its arguments are based on a theological ground. Its arguments are not based on verifiable fact or logic. But it would make sense if, in an area with a high percentage of LDS members that alcohol consumption would happen in a few places, because the business opportunities are fewer.

          It’s kind of about active and passive influence. Passive influence cannot really be stopped, and one side effect is the business aspect – you find businesses cropping up that primary serve or relate to that culture or religion, and you find less of ones that are contrary to that culture or religion. That’s because, as economics would probably tell us, businesses form and grow to support the need of the local population. If you’ve got a high population of non-drinkers, you’re not going to get much alcohol-related business. That is not the same as active influence, which is when the culture or the religion actively forms groups to engage in local politics or law-making in order to push their beliefs into the law, thereby forcing everyone to live by that group’s beliefs.

          It’s not about “harm” at all on any level. It’s simply about groups wanting to force others to live under their rules. Allowing same-sex marriage does not (generally) force religious groups to accept or allow it within their belief system. But denying same-sex marriage does force religious and non-religious people to live in a ‘lesser’ way, i.e. they cannot enjoy the status and benefits of a marriage. That is “harmful”, if you wish to go down that route.

    2. CRM says:

      Couldn’t all law be considered as a codification of beliefs and principles? Belief in things like basic personal freedoms, the right to private property, an unbiased and impartial justice system, and so on (basically, the Bill of Rights) are what form the basis of the law of the United States. This is just a consensus of the beliefs of the founding fathers.

  7. As disturbing as all of this is, what really surprised me is that Mr. Modesitt is allergic to alcohol. The way his protagonists enjoy both food and drink, I somehow always imagined him enjoying a pale lager once in a while. 🙂

  8. Wine Guy says:

    The LDS/alcohol thing reminds me of a joke that is told in the south:

    Q: When you’re going fishing with your Southern Baptist friend, how do you make sure that he doesn’t drink all of your beer?

    A: You bring along TWO Southern Baptist friends.

    Most any Evangeliscal, Catholic, SBC, LDS, 7DA, or JW: I’d say that 90% of them are just as human as the next person and that ensures a baseline hypocrisy that grates on my very last nerve. ESPECIALLY those who wear it on their chest like a badge of honor.

  9. JakeB says:

    I observe that it’s become pretty clear that moderate alcohol consumption is good for your health, while soft drinks are possibly the worst thing you can consume.

    Those authorities really concerned about health should be supporting a complete ban on soda and encouraging families to share a bottle of wine at dinner time.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      Some other states have regulations on alcoholic beverages nearly as stringent; less than a handful of grandfathered convenience stores in all of Maryland are allowed to sell them (all other sales being through county-controlled/regulated liquor stores supplied by approved distributors*), and there are quotas on liquor licenses for restaurants, restrictions on hours, and all sorts of other red tape.

      Does it really matter that Utah does so because of an influential majority that happens to be of a single denomination?

      Moreover, I think the whole “gay marriage” issue is idiotic. From what I’ve read, not all insist on it; many recognize that the notion is broadly offensive and would be content with a domestic civil contract that had comparable legal ramifications. The real issue there is that you’ve got a vocal minority of a minority, and those that find it convenient to pander politically to them, demanding equal _acceptance_ of not merely their right to make personal choices, but of whatever those choices may happen to be. That’s an absurdity; one cannot dictate the mindset of others with reasonable success. Better to privatize entirely the issuing of marriage licenses to _anyone_ (leaving people to shop for someone that will issue something according to their wishes) and decouple it from the rest of the issues of family law.

      * I gather that limited online sales are now possible, presumably with measures to ensure that the local government gets the “sin tax” money. I have yet to investigate whether there’s any advantage in either variety or price to be had from that.

      1. Kathryn (@Loerwyn) says:

        The reasons same-sex couples want to get married are the same reasons mixed-sex couples want to get married. The church does not own marriage, it does not have the right to define it outside of its own churches. Marriage pre-dates the Christian churches, it is present in the vast majority (if not all) major world religions – Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc. – and as such one religion, or in the case of the LDS, one small sub-sect of a religion, cannot and should not be allowed to dictate the terms of marriage to anyone.

        And being gay isn’t a choice. And I think you’ll find LGBT/same-sex activists are fighting for legal equality, which in time will bring the social equality.

        So no, it’s not a vocal minority of a minority. And even if it was, it’s a fight for equality. That is not a bad thing on any level, and largely the same arguments and thoughts were levelled in the past at interracial marriages (which still have some stigma attached, especially in certain parts of the US and, indeed, the world).

  10. mark smith says:

    A lot of the alcohol restrictions in Utah come down to money. The state makes a LOT of money because of its monopoly on the wine and liquor franchise. It approaches nearly 100 million dollars a year. And money is actually one of the driving forces to relax some of the restrictions. The state can make more money if it takes a softer approach to alcohol. Though I doubt you will see the state allowing free import of alcohol into the state via mail for this reason.

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