A Fight From Weakness

THE SUPREME COURT'S 8-1 decision Monday to overturn a Massachusetts law allowing churches to veto liquor licenses within a 500-ft. radius of the church is not surprising. The case was a clear-cut example of violation of church-state separation. More fascinating though is the glimpse the whole case gives of a few local churches, waning in influence, trying to exert a little supposed moral leadership by using the power of the state.

The case began when the Holy Cross Armenian Catholic Church in Harvard Square decided not to let Grendel's, a local restaurant within 500 feet of the church, obtain a liquor license. The church did not explain why it was only challenging Grendel's, when 26 other restaurants within the legal radius also served alcohol. It also did not explain why Cambridge's non-Armenian Catholics should wield such power over Cambridge's non-Armenian Catholics.

That church's action was not entirely isolated. While the finishing touches were being put on the Supreme Court's decision in Washington, two other Cambridge churches were also taking advantage of their powers under the absurd law. Ruggle's, a new pizza parlor in the Square, just last week lost its bid for a liquor license, after two churches sent in their objections to the Cambridge License Commission.

It isn't really the state's fault for having the law. Written centuries ago at a time when Cambridge's churches really were community leaders, there was some logic, albeit unconstitutional logic, in giving them a say in which restaurants could serve liquor. But now that the twentieth century has arrived, it seems odd for the churches to have continued to invoke their power under the law.

Edwin A. Lane, minister of the First Parish in Cambridge (Unitarian Universalistic) this week explained why his church wrote a letter opposing a license for Ruggle's. "I am at this point opposed to anybody, no matter how reputable or disreputable they are, as I believe the proliferation of licenses in Harvard Square to be the issue." But his decision to send a letter smacks of using the government to impose a morality he cannot impose through his religious offices alone.


This is a new, and more invidious combination of church and state: the combination not out of church's strength, but out of its weakness.

This same force is now propelling the proponents of prayer in the schools. If every schoolchild in America attended church, it would be illogical to put prayer in an institution of secular education. The problem, if course, is that the religious are trying to use the government's system of public schools to imbue some Americans with a message they will not come to church to hear.

The Supreme Court decision was made on grounds of separation of church and state, wisely drawing the distinction between states like New York that simply decide not to allow alcohol licensees to establishments within 500 feet of a church, and states like Massachusetts, which gives the churches the political power of exercising a selective veto if they wish. The Massachusetts law gives churches unwarranted political authority, while in New York, churches are simply passive actors.

The great irony of the decision, however, is that if democracy really played a role and residents of the Cambridge Square area were asked to choose between alcohol and churches, the vote would probably be close. A lot more people drink on Saturday nights in Harvard Square than attend church on Sunday morning. In fact, there are probably a few drinkers who don't like to be reminded of religion when they drink and might favor a law forbidding any churches within 500 feet of establishments serving liquor.

If churches are not exerting the sort of moral leadership they once did in Cambridge, they should do some market research or somehow jazz up the product, or be content with their lessened influence. They just shouldn't look to the government to help spread the faith.