Have you ever tried to buy a car on Sunday in Colorado only to find the dealership closed? What about buying a 6 pack in Indiana, only to find the liquor aisle blocked off, then begrudgingly driving to nearby Illinois where the sale is permitted on Sundays. Or maybe you were taking a Sunday drive through Bergen County, New Jersey, and wanted to buy a new iPhone but were dismayed to find out that the County prohibits electronic sales on Sundays. I haven’t tried any of these either—but why do these laws exist, and where did they come from?
Blue Law Roots
“Blue” Laws, or laws that mandate certain types of closings on Sundays, go far back in American history. However their true roots extend further back in history to the Fourth Century when Emperor Constantine declared that Sunday would be a day to abstain from work. This decree resonated with the major parties in the Roman Empire, particularly pagan Sun-worshipers and Christians. As Christianity spread and ultimately became the state religion of the empire, Sundays became a combined holy day and civic holiday for drinking and amusements. This combination held steady until the Reformation in the 16th century, when religious bodies demanded that Sunday be devoted solely to worship and contemplation, without frivolousness.
When the Puritans fled England to escape religious persecution, they immediately enacted ordinances to prohibit certain activities on Sunday. In the late 1630s, the Puritan settlers in the New Haven Colony issued a list of banned activities on the Sabbath which began at sundown on Saturday. Activities such as running, shaving, dancing, playing cards, and missing church services were prohibited and listed severe punishments should anyone be caught in the act. The colonists in Boston deemed these laws “blue laws” because the punishments for violating them were so extreme—anything from whipping, tongue-burning, excommunication, banishment, and even death. While there is an urban legend that “blue laws” are named such because of the paper that they were written on, or that they were originally bound in blue books, there is no evidence to support such ideas. Only that the word blue was used in the 17th century as a judgmental critique to strict moral codes and those who followed them.
Challenges to Blue Laws
Because the roots of blue laws clearly originate from a religious background, many have argued that blue laws are unconstitutional. However, the Supreme Court of the United States has continually upheld the constitutionality of the laws. In an early 1960s case, McGowan v. Maryland, the Court upheld the constitutionality of Maryland’s blue laws against challenges that they violated the Establishment, Equal Protection, Free Exercise, and Due Process clauses. The majority ruled that although the historical roots of blue laws were of a religious nature, they now exist to serve a secular purpose—to improve the “health, safety, recreation, and general well-being” of citizens in the form of a uniform day of rest for all.
While the courts have upheld the constitutionality of blue laws, most states have weakened, repealed, or overturned their own. The sale of alcohol on Sundays was made legal here in Connecticut in 2012, and while 12 states still have some form of Sunday liquor sale control, Indiana is the only state left that does not allow any liquor sale.
The degradation of blue laws does not only include those that dictate when certain stores can legally operate—there are other laws that are being slowly chipped away. For example, hunting on Sunday is restricted or prohibited in 10 states including Connecticut, but as of 2015 Connecticut passed legislation that legalized hunting on private property, and further passed legislation that legalized archery hunting for deer on Sunday.
Intertwined with religious history and interpreted with secular justifications, blue laws continue to impact our weekend itineraries. Whether the reason is religious or secular, for church attendance or a uniform day off, states continue to pass exceptions and full repeal of these laws. As one article notes eventually “… blue laws will have all turned pale periwinkle by individual state action without the Supreme Court having to overrule their previous decisions”.
"McGowan v. Maryland." Oyez, 12 Nov. 2017, www.oyez.org/cases/1960/8.
Gary A. Weissman, Blue Laws, 82 Hennepin Law. 29, 32 (2013)
Furi-Perry, Ursula. “Chapter 11 A History of Blue Laws.” The Little Book of Holiday Law, American Bar Association, 2013, pp. 105–112.