In past years I looked forward to spigot season. Lugging 40-plus gallons of sap from widely dispersed maples into a boiler needing round-the-clock watching might give a gallon of syrup if you’ve also observed other steps to get there. Despite the incessant labor (not my style at all), I enjoyed it. I’d be doing it to this day were it not for assorted bad joints that make snowshoeing burdened by a pair five-gallon pails an excessively unrewarding activity. There’s more fun using an ice pick to kill a wood tick located at the groin. (Skeptics, please take my word on this.)

I was in a sap distilling mood when someone replaced my mental spigot with the term bigot, to which they added racist as a help for me to grasp their message. As an aid this wasn’t much good, because for the life of me I couldn’t think of a racist message in my writing. But I take it as fair warning that I stay alert to becoming a racist bigot. It is, after all, things a person is not doing that are the most difficult to avoid because you don’t know what they are. It’s like a mother telling you “Get back in here” when you’ve never left and are just standing there trying to grasp the strange ways of the grown-up mind.

It’s not terribly rare (sad to say) that people often feel a great need to guard against imagined threats. Every night my mother went round her house carefully shutting drapes so no one could peep. With no near neighbors, it was impossible to see the light of any house other than ours, surrounded by spruce and balsam where the potential peepers were red squirrels—not generally active at night but certainly capable of getting fifteen feet up a tree to window level for a look in.

Every time Mother expressed her concern, I was tempted to say, “Mother, if you PAID someone you’d have a tough time finding a taker.” You see, I viewed (and rightly so I think) interest in a 75-year-old woman in her bra as an area of erotic appeal limited to a select few. This was clearly a specialty field. We had one possible candidate about a half mile away, but he was older than Mother and I doubted that without help getting a ladder in place he would get far. For safety’s sake I’d have to steady the ladder for him and hope to goodness our liability insurance covered this sort of thing. The remoteness of the possibility didn’t stop Mother from worrying and being prepared in case a peeping geezer appeared at her window, when it was far more likely he’d knock at the door and ask to sit a minute for his nitro to work before asking me to get him home.

Now back up to my life as racist bigot by being critical of a religious attire accommodation by the St. Paul police. Confronted, I was sternly asked why I wasn’t a good American who believed in freedom of religion and diversity. It’s a trick question when the asker gives conclusion before you’ve given evidence. We protect freedom of worship/belief (including non-belief) as a right wider than “religion” alone. Though the right is broad, practice has limits. We deny multiple marriage and animal sacrifice along with many other rituals. If someone accuses you or me of violating a freedom, they have an obligation to know what that freedom is rather than go by what they suppose it to be. But even if we limit the right to that of “religion,” this does not translate into a free pass enabling injection of religious practices into public life. I do not call inserting the religious practices of a sect an act that demonstrates freedom, not when all other sects are denied that same form of expression in their exercise of public service. Are you with me so far? I hope so, because I haven’t yet gotten to the part where I might argue there is more racist-bigot potential making one sectarian position so special it requires accommodation beyond that of lesser beliefs.

The question of diversity is even more fun. Is it an expression of diversity when a government enforcement body takes a public position siding with one sectarian portion within a sect? If one were to practice diversity by promoting sectarianism, then that’s the way to do it, but it think that is clearly not the way to go. Government (especially enforcement) should be effectively neutral on sectarian beliefs. The St. Paul police should not side with one sect of Islam any more than they should promote one synod of Lutheranism, or Hassidism as the definition of Hebrew belief. Indeed, accommodation regarding a hair covering traditional in one group may well harm the goal of diversity by demonstrating police backing for traditional/conservative belief. Just what is it that’s diverse in backing one portion of one sect? American democracy and law have had a long, hard struggle to reach a degree of equity. Why would an enforcement branch take upon itself the role of championing religious and gender discrimination and do so in the name of diversity? In our tradition doing so makes no sense. It is also very, very wrong.

I say it is wrong because we have the warning of centuries of history where sectarian forces worked in and through public authority. How many people suffered persecution and grief at the “innocent” hands of sectarianism wielding power? Letting a little bit of innocent religious practice surface in public service is as foolish as thinking the mating of religious egg with political sperm will not result in a very ugly and mean-spirited offspring. Separation of church and state is a more fundamental good than endless attempts to accommodate sectarian beliefs. Attempts at diversity that end up fostering discrimination and division should be rejected.

I welcome those who wish to do so to get out their crystal balls to reveal my racist bigotry. And good luck with that, too.