EDITORIAL: The Zion Curtain – Tear Down this Wall


The so called “Zion Curtain” has been a stain on Utah since it was first introduced in 2010. At that time, the Utah State Legislature felt it was in the public’s interest to force businesses to erect physical partitions between restaurants goers and those preparing drinks. At the time, their argument was that the walls (dubbed “Zion Curtains”) would protect children from the seduction of drinking because bartenders at your local Chili’s glamorize the process of preparing and distributing a drink.

Feelings have shifted, and during the recent legislative session the issue of repealing the Zion Curtain law was floated. Cooler heads in the House overwhelmingly voted to repeal the law (63-11), but  it was ultimately defeated in the Senate. So from a legislative standpoint, the status quo remains – Zion Curtains will be a reality in Utah for at least one more year.

The reason Utah Political Capitol is weighing in on the Zion Curtain now is because our friends at the Sutherland Institute penned a blog post that the UPC staff felt deserved a rebuttal.

In summary, the Sutherland Institute feels that the Zion Curtain is good public policy and that lawmakers supporting the repeal of the Zion Curtain “do not understand why it is (supposedly) necessary.

Sutherland’s claim is that without the Zion Curtain, Utah would be encouraging a “pervasive culture of drinking” and says that a child or teen witnessing beverage preparation is akin to a child or teen viewing pornography. Going further, the author rhetorically asks why we have pictures of family, religious symbols, and/or art in lieu of pornography? The response given is that children acquire whatever culture they are exposed too, and that neither parents or the government (or restaurants?) should promote a culture of alcohol consumption.

Sutherland does point out, and Utah Political Capitol concurs, that “no reasonable adult openly encourages children to consume alcohol,” but where we begin to diverge with their opinion is in the second half of their statement. “…many reasonable adults often neglect the culture surrounding the drinking of alcohol – if liquor is prevalent throughout everyday life, especially where we eat and drink (as in the most common chain restaurants), children become acculturated and desensitized to alcohol consumption, which can lead to early drinking.”

The most common argument that is levied against the Zion Curtain is that it is an undue burden to business. Though we should never sacrifice morals and traditions for the almighty dollar, it is worth noting that the law creates an unfunded mandate on local businesses to cough up tens of thousands of dollars to build a new internal structure which merely shield patrons from the sight of drinks being prepared, not from those consuming it.

This argument goes hand in hand with the following – Zion Curtains hurt our image in the eyes of the rest of the world. There are far too man stories of people and groups viewing Utah’s overall liquor laws as so foreign and/or bizarre that they choose not to come to our state. The Zion Curtain adds to this perception and makes potential tourists, along with their dollars, less likely.

But Sutherland is making a cultural argument, so it is this we must respond to. To start, we must assert that the viewing of alcohol does not achieve the desired result of alcohol – as opposed to the viewing of pornography, which does achieve its desired goal upon viewing – to this end the physiological and psychological impact of viewing alcohol is far different than the viewing of pornography. Sutherland should be ashamed of making such an inaccurate association that is clearly designed to disgust the reader and immediately cast any disagreement as vile.

Does the presence of alcohol create a “culture of consumption?” Utah Political Capitol says no. The presence of family photos, religious iconography, art, alcohol, or the millions of other things that exist in our lives are not culture in-and-of-themselves . Culture is the way abstract ideas are passed down from one generation to the next and the impact of any individual piece of culture on a child is dependent on both biology and upbringing.  Is there a subculture associated with alcohol consumption? Yes. But there are also subcultures associate with reading or church membership or political party, or, or, or…

The very basic philosophy and assumptions made by the Sutherland Institute and other supporters of the Zion Curtain can almost be called ‘laughable.’ As was pointed out on twitter by many people, including Republican legislators, responding to the Sutherland Institute piece: the idea that you can prevent kids from drinking by not letting them see liquid being poured into a glass is just silly.

From Republican Representative Spencer Cox (Fairview) during a days-long twitter fight with Sutherland President Paul Mero:

cox alcohol tweet

Another irony to this story is that Sutherland Institute is one of the primary opponents of legislation they deem as creating a “nanny state.” Any time they feel a proposed law would legislate the way a child is raised, their immediate outcry on the Hill, their website, and on social media is loud, sharp, and occasionally disrespectful. Yet this time, when it’s a policy they agree with, there is no outcry or righteous indignation against the tyranny of government. If you are going to constantly argue that it is the job of parents, and not the government, to raise children in an appropriate fashion, then the argument needs to remain consistent rather than abandoned when it suits your needs.

In a predominantly LDS state, parents have a right to raise their children in a domestic situation free of alcohol. But no parent, despite what they may wish, can entirely shield their children from the world – and it is naive to think that a child could reach adulthood without any exposure to alcohol. In order to be a healthy, well rounded adult, children must be exposed to the world, warts and all. It is the role of the parent to help guide the child through potential pitfalls and pinnacles so that the child has a blueprint of how to be a good person in this world. If all of the parenting you have done to raise your child can be completely undone by the child seeing liquid being poured into a glass, the problem does not lay at the feet of the restaurant.

Culture matters – and so too does understanding and communication between subcultures. Non-drinkers (being the majority in this state) must not presume that a drinker is a bad person and the cause of all social ills. Likewise, drinkers (being the minority) must understand that there are many who fear what they do not understand, and that they should be respectful of those outside “the culture of drinking” when in social situations where these two cultures intertwine – such as a restaurants. An overall lack of communication and understanding is leading to the literal erection of walls rather than the creation of sound policy that would allow adults to be adults, and children to be aware of what alcohol does – both good and ill.

Common sense solutions require collaboration, not contention. UPC feels that there are many ways to prevent youth from drinking and that adults should be able to exercise their personal liberty and consume a legal substance in a responsible manner, furthermore, we feel that these two ideas can exist next to each other.

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