First, sugar-free, salt-free and caffeine-free. Then nuclear-free, as in nuclear-free zones. (Chicago declared itself one just this March.) And now -- there is no stopping progress -- the latest in liberation: the law-free zone, places that have decided that certain U.S. laws are morally inconvenient and, thus, will not apply.

To be sure, the idea goes by a more elevated name: sanctuary. More than 250 churches, at least 12 cities and one state (New Mexico) have declared their territory a "sanctuary" for illegal refugees from Central America. It follows that they are sanctuary, too, from the laws of the United States.

The motives of the sanctuary movement, are, I grant, less trivial than those of Tab-drinkers and less craven than those of the Chicago city council. But perhaps because the motives are more serious, the consequences are more pernicious.

The law says refugees are to be granted asylum if they have "a well-founded fear of persecution," not if they have come to the United States for economic reasons. And persecution is proved by showing that they are being individually targeted, not just that their country is in turmoil or their region has become a war zone.

That is the law because Congress, in its wisdom, has decided that there are simply too many people in the world living in economic difficulty or amid political turmoil for the United States to accept them on these grounds alone. Now, this may not be a good law. Perhaps America should open its door wider. But the law it is.

In Tucson, some religious activists, including two Roman Catholic priests, a nun, a Presbyterian minister and four lay workers, decided that this is a bad law. And so they decided to break it. They openly brought in refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala. Last week a jury found them guilty on 18 counts of immigration law violations.

Leaders of 11 Washington area churches, also part of the sanctuary movement, called the verdict a "mockery." Had not the U.S. attorney warned that the movement is based on a felony? "We were warned a few thousand years before him," responded Rev. John Steinbruck. "King Herod issued such a warning against harboring refugees."

Herod, however, was not elected. (He was, like two of the Tucson 8, appointed by Rome.) Congress was. As a consequence, its laws -- until repealed by state, not church -- command respect.

Respect means either trying to change them by democratic means or breaking them and going to jail. True civil disobedience makes a distinction between a law and "the Law." If you find the former unjust, you may break it, but you show your respect for the latter by accepting the consequences of your acts, including going to jail. You don't whine when found guilty.

But whining is what came out of Washington. "The Justice Department and the Reagan administration are not going to rewrite the Bible as far as we're concerned," thundered Rev. Steinbruck. Now, now. The Justice Department is not trying to rewrite the Bible. It has no need to. The relevant document for deciding what may be done in these United States is not the Bible, but the U.S. Criminal Code.

When Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Falwell imply the contrary, they are rightly denounced as reactionary and un-American. And when an antiabortionist -- protesting what he takes to be the denial of a right more fundamental even than asylum -- damages an abortion clinic, he is put in jail. He may be adhering to a higher law, and, if he is, he'll get his reward -- later. Meantime, down here, that doesn't count. Until changed by the courts or Congress, abortion is legal and bringing in aliens on one's own initiative is not.

There is a side issue here: liberal hypocrisy about mixing religion and politics. Let Jerry Falwell do it and the rending of designer garments can be heard from East Hampton to Bel Air. Let the left do it (the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the Jesse Jackson presidential campaign, and now the sanctuary movement) and there is a discreet silence interrupted only by occasional applause.

But liberal hypocrisy is too old a story to merit more than a paragraph. What is original and noteworthy here is the new idea: the responsibility-free zone, being carved out everywhere in American society.

Now a new autonomous zone. Washington Post headline, May 3: "Editors Favor Exemption from Espionage Laws." Naval intelligence analyst Samuel Loring Morison was convicted of espionage for passing classified photos to a British magazine. The American Society of Newspaper Editors has decided to support court review of the conviction, presumably on the grounds that giving secrets to the press cannot be espionage. Leaks, of course, generally don't make for espionage. But never? Presumably then, if you blow the cover of, say, an American agent, but do it in, say, a Greek newspaper, you'll be home free.

Free. It is time for some enterprising young person to make a mint with a new travel-guide to the United States. Want a weekend free from the terrors of the nuclear age? Spend it in nuclear-free Chicago. A month immune from immigration law? Try a Tucson church, or maybe August in New Mexico. And if you really want to get fancy and spend an afternoon beyond the reach of those silly espionage laws, why, come up and have coffee (Sanka, no sugar) at my office at The New Republic.