Religious Exemptions

Religious Exemptions

Don’t Even Think About Alcohol!

As if prohibiting the sale of alcohol wasn’t severe enough, legend has it that there were even attempts to rewrite the Bible to remove any references to alcohol.  And if you think that this is a radical idea in 2019, you should really Google this topic, because there are no less than 721,000 hits for this particular oddity.

The Temperance Movement was principally behind the push towards a dry nation.  The problem was that the Temperance Movement was rooted in religion and they couldn’t escape the fact that references to alcohol existed in the Bible.  How could it be a mortal sin in the 1920’s when it hadn’t been when the Bible was written?

No big deal, they decided to start a second movement to rewrite the Bible and sanitize the references to alcohol.  The Temperance Movement went so far as to hire experts to rewrite any scripture invoking the illegal type of spirits.  So what did Jesus drink at the Last Supper?  Grape juice, obviously!

So let’s get weirder and try to work out why it is then that religious organizations were given exemptions to the Volstead Act.  To recap, selling alcohol is illegal, drinking it a sin but only in the 1920’s and not when the Bible was written, but not so much of a sin that religious leaders can’t use alcohol in their services.  Got it?  At this point just accepting Capone as your 1920’s spiritual leader might start to sound pretty good.

You won’t find a religious exemption in the constitutional amendment, though.  Instead, Congress shoved an exemption for religious leaders to use sacramental wine in legislation.  Famously, Supreme Court Justice Souter wrote in a Supreme Court opinion, “without an exemption for sacramental wine, Prohibition may fail the test of religion neutrality and therefore violate free exercise.”

So while distilleries and breweries closed their doors, a new market was found in Napa Valley, where a very creative winemaker named Georges Latour grew grapes expressly for making sacramental wine for Catholic churches.  Latour was close to the archbishop of San Francisco who demanded all of his priests buy their wine exclusively from Latour.  Latour, though, was more entrepreneurial than exclusively Catholic, and he created kosher wine for the Jewish market.  Whether the wine ever left the possession of the religious leader and was actually shared with the members of the houses of worship is anyone’s guess and it’s also guessed that Latour didn’t care because he’d created the only niche alcohol market that didn’t rely upon gangster intervention.

Some regulations were in place, for example, the vineyard producing wine for sale to religious leaders had to be permitted.  As we all know by now nearly every regulation from the 1920’s as a failure, and this one is no exception.  It’s estimated that grapes produced solely for the benefit of the Roman Catholic Church went up 700% while Prohibition was in effect.

So you can drink the wine during Communion but you have to remember to remind the congregation that Jesus only drank grape juice.

If the entire point of the Temperance Movement was to encourage church membership and not really about alcohol, perhaps Prohibition was a success!

Written by Amy Williams

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