This article was written by Len Muncil of the Center for Arizona Policy in Phoenix.  


“You can’t legislate morality.”

This simple phrase holds an honored place among the “current wisdom” of today.   It is an oft-repeated mantra intended to end all further discussion of an issue, robotically reiterated by politicians and pundits from across the political spectrum, from far left to far right.

And it is dead wrong.

In fact, its just plain stupid.  The proposition is logically indefensible.

As we prepare for another session at the Arizona Legislature, and as a new Congress prepares to take office, it is time to put this big lie to rest once and for all.

As with most big lies, there is a small kernel of truth contained in the statement that “you can’t force people to be good by passing laws.  Passing laws will not force people to behave consistently with those laws.  Virtue — or making right choices — is by definition an act of the will that cannot be compelled.

That, however, does not end the discussion.  The fact that laws are not always obeyed is not an argument against having laws. 

We know, for example, that murders will continue to happen despite our laws to the contrary.  Every time a murder occurs, we dont legislate morality,” and try to repeal laws against murder.  Why?  Because “thou shalt not kill” is a part of our basic moral code.  And it is in the best interest of our community to have moral laws that define and prohibit conduct detrimental to society and to individuals in society.

Laws prohibiting murder, however, are most assuredly the legislation of morality.

In fact, every law is by definition a legislation of morality.    A law is defined as a “rule of conduct or action.”  A rule by definition set the boundary between right conduct and wrong conduct.  Discussions of right and wrong conduct are, of course, moral discussions.

When the people of Arizona voted to ban cockfighting, we were legislating morality.   When we pass laws to punish polluters and protect the environment, we are legislating morality.  When we pass civil rights laws, we are legislating morality.   When we pass laws against polygamy, we are legislating morality.

Even when we pass speed limit laws, we are still legislating morality.  We are making a moral judgment as a community that, beyond a certain speed, it is wrong to put haste in getting somewhere ahead of the safety of individuals.

The fact that we would even have a debate over “legislating morality” is further demonstration of how ignorant we have become about our own nations culture.

That is because, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said, America is essentially an idea.   And that idea is a moral idea, in fact a series of ideas, all of which have strong moral components.  For example, the notion that we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights is a moral idea.  The notion that all men are created equal is a profoundly moral idea.

Our nation’s acceptance of these moral ideas is what sets America apart.  We are not united by geography or ethnicity, but by our willingness as a people to abide by moral ideas.  These moral ideas are contained in documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which still govern us today.

It should be clear that legislating morality is not the same thing as legislating religion, which should not and cannot be permitted under our Constitution.   To legislate religion is to try to tell people how they must relate to God.   Legislating morality, on the other hand, is about how people relate to each other.

The legislation of morality can be, and often is, based on moral beliefs contained in the Bible and other religious documents.  Laws against murder and theft have roots in Scripture.  You could even argue that the biblical notion that we have a responsibility to take care of those less fortunate is legislated through a tax code that redistributes wealth from the rich to the poor.

The phrase seemingly only appears when the issue under discussion relates to sexual morality, or the traditional definition of marriage or family.   Then the same liberals who legislate moral rules in every area of our life decide for us that thousands of years of moral teaching and tradition relating to sexuality and family are irrelevant and can no longer be recognized in the law.

Thus, we are told we should not “legislate morality” in defining marriage as between one man and one woman, or by allowing marriage partners to commit to a “covenant marriage.”  But 30 years ago no one raised the issue of legislating morality when states unilaterally nullified the marriage contracts of all citizens by changing marriage laws to allow no-fault divorce

We are told we can’t legislate morality in protecting society from illegal and constitutionally unprotected hard-core pornography.  But when our children are exposed to pornography through the Internet at school, or given instruction in sexuality complete with free condoms in state-run schools, no one argues that immorality is being imposed on our children by force of law.

As we begin the legislative process again in 1999, let’s at least be honest about this matter.  The issue is not whether to legislate morality.  The issue is this:   which moral rules are necessary and in the best interests of society, and which are not?

As an organization devoted to strengthening the traditional family, protecting the innocence of children, and defending the sanctity of human life, that is a debate we are well-prepared for and more than willing to engage in.  So let’s cut the nonsense about legislating morality, and get on with a real debate over the things that matter most.