‘Zion Curtain’ is a matter of culture

The following post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations:

If you were to take a tour of my home, you would immediately notice the symbols of my family’s culture. Our living room is simple and uncluttered. On its walls hang artistic representations of our Mormon heritage and our six children. More family pictures line our hallways. In fact, our entire home is filled with the symbols of faith and family.

Of all of the things we could have chosen to decorate our home environment, we chose the symbols of faith and family. We could have chosen the symbols of other cultures. We could have chosen to decorate our home with pictures of Victoria’s Secret models or with beautiful people we don’t even know. Instead, when you walk into our home you know immediately that faith and family are at the center of our culture.

We believe that culture influences our lives. The symbols of life with which we surround ourselves are stark reminders of what’s important to us. I love my wife and I don’t need a picture of my wife to inform that love. But that picture reminds me of that love. More to the point, I don’t have pictures of strangers adorning my home precisely because they remind me of nothing. Culture matters.

The 2013 session of the Utah Legislature was quiet for the most part but the issue of Utah’s liquor laws threatened to disrupt the calm.

The House of Representatives passed a bill that would repeal the requirement for alcoholic drinks to be mixed separate and apart from dining customers in restaurants. These separated areas are often referred to derogatorily as “Zion Walls,” or the “Zion Curtain,” in describing how teetotalling Mormon culture governs our state liquor policies.

There are no scientific studies showing evidence that a Zion Curtain lessens liquor consumption – and no studies appear to be forthcoming for such a unique and isolated policy. Opponents of the Zion Curtain law argue that this lack of evidence should be reason enough for anyone to support the law’s repeal. These opponents also cite that such unreasonable liquor laws make Utah appear foolish to outsiders and, ultimately, inhibit economic development.

Those of us who support the Zion Curtain law argue that it disrupts a culture of drinking. To paraphrase, it’s the culture, stupid. A bar has a culture of drinking if it has culture at all. Children aren’t allowed in bars, and [recovering] alcoholics know to steer clear of bars. Utah’s Zion Curtain law applies to restaurants, not bars. Children attend restaurants, as do people struggling with alcohol addiction. By separating where alcoholic drinks are mixed from the diners, a culture of drinking is not confused with a culture of dining.

Research on the influence of culture in our lives is ubiquitous, and a culture of drinking is not excluded from this research. For instance, it’s quite clear that children who grow up within a culture of drinking in their homes will most likely become drinkers and are most often the children with drinking problems. In these cases, it’s as if those children lived in a bar exposed to free-flowing liquor. While that type of culture is a parental choice, society is perfectly within its bounds to rule it a poor choice and influence children from those homes to make different choices outside of their homes. Could it be, for those children, that a restaurant with a Zion Curtain might be the first time in a child’s life wherein a culture of drinking is downplayed? Could it be, for people struggling with alcohol addiction, that a restaurant with a Zion Curtain might be a public respite for lives otherwise inundated with a culture of drinking?

Critics of Utah’s Zion Curtain law can claim a lack of direct evidence in its support. What these critics can’t claim is that culture doesn’t matter.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.