Lowen Kruse, Teen Drinking, and Communion

We no longer care about the spirit of the law. Rather, we care only for the letter of the law.
 (John Snyder, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Earlier this month, Nebraska senator Lowen Kruse proposed a new bill that would contain stricter regulations aimed at controlling underage drinking by removing the possible excuses that inebriated minors might come up with when questioned. Specifically, the bill would remove the following exemption from Nebraska state law:

Except that a minor may consume, possess, or have physical control of alcoholic liquor in his or her permanent place of residence or on the premises of a place of religious worship on which premises alcoholic liquor is consumed as part of a religious rite, ritual or ceremony.

In other words, minors would no longer be allowed to drink at home, even under adult supervision, nor would they be allowed to imbibe alcohol as part of a religious ceremony, such as communion.

Needless to say, this raised quite a bit of a stink. So much so, in fact, that Kruse has now amended his bill. Minors can now still legally consume alcohol as part of a religious ceremony, such as communion. However, Kruse’s bill would still make it illegal for minors to imbibe alcohol in their own home, even under parental supervision.

I’ll admit that my first response upon hearing this was to roll my eyes in disgust. Surely, of all of the issues that threaten our society, there are more important things to worry about than whether or not minors can drink communion wine.

However, the more I read into this — including those two JournalStar articles, as well as Kruse’s own newsletters, I’m less dismayed at Kruse’s actions, which I still think are a bit misguided, and more dismayed at the fact that such legislation is even deemed necessary.

In his January 13, 2007 newsletter, Kruse writes:

Another news item relates to where minors can drink. At present, church and home are the only two exemptions in location. I contend that public policy should be that teens not be allowed to drink anywhere. A few Christians are contending that communion is drinking. That is ridiculous, but we will change the language to make it clear. Which is what my legal guru wanted to do all along. I hate it when he is right.

However, it is not simple and several lawyers have wrestled with it. Present language allows teens to consume alcohol “on the premises where religious services are held…” Perhaps it is good legal language — but it is misleading English. Senator Chambers often says we are hypocrites when we say teens should not drink, but they may get drunk at church or at home. The language must be changed.

I of course am opposed to any law which would compromise a religious ceremony. The technical wording is a distraction from the main point; stop teen drinking. I do question the mixed message sent by a priest who, as one parent complained to me, tells teens not to drink but forces an altar boy to drink some wine. There are better and acceptable church alternatives but that is for the church, not the senators, to say and do. For example, Jewish leaders say scripture does not require wine for children. Also, every church serves the valid eucharist to pregnant women and recovering alcoholics, without wine. Again, not mine to decide.

This seems to imply that Kruse’s original intent was not so much to prosecute churches, to stamp out tradition, throw preachers in jail, or create some sort of government oversight of the church. Rather, it was an attempt to clean up legal language that could potentially offer a loophole. An attempt that was not good enough the first time, hence the brouhaha and subsequent clarification by Kruse and his legal guru.

Kruse disagrees with serving wine during communion to begin with, but he’s not the first to voice such a disagreement (though I think that such a disagreement has less to do with correct Biblical translation and interpretation and more to do with the lasting effects of the Temperance movement). But even though he has such a disagreement, he rightly concedes that is an issue that each church ultimately needs to decide for themselves (my own church serves both wine and grape juice).

As I said before, I think I have a better idea of where Kruse is coming from, even if I disagree with where he ultimately goes. But what ultimately strikes me about this entire debate is not where I agree and disagree with Kruse. Rather, it’s the fact that such intense clarification of the law is necessary these days, or at least seen as necessary.

We no longer care about the spirit of the law. Rather, we care only for the letter of the law. And as such, we scrutinize the law, not so we can do a better job of understanding and following it, but so that we can twist it to our own advantage — regardless of whether we’re a minor looking to get away with drinking, a driver trying to talk our way out of a ticket, a politician hoping to explain away a power grab, or a multi-billion dollar company trying to explain away unethical actions.

I found this quote from the second JournalStar article quite interesting (emphasis mine):

Kruse said he assumed common sense would prevail — and the tiny amount of alcohol offered at communion would not rise to a criminal offense.

Unfortunately, “common sense” is no longer a concept that our society is terribly familiar with these days. I was originally planning to call into question Kruse’s grasp of common sense, as his seemingly-draconian bill struck me as quite at odds with it. The more I reflect on this, however, the more I realize that this is not Kruse’s issue alone. It’s yours and it’s mine.

Read more about Lowen Kruse.
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