Sunday Shopping: Mandatory Store-Closing Laws Made Some People Blue

'Blue Laws' are pretty anachronistic today and have mostly fallen by the wayside. What happened?

I just got back from a visit to Southern California, where I spoke in three cities about my book Taking Liberties Why Religious Freedom Doesn’t Give You The Right To Tell Other People What To Do.

I always take questions at these events. At the event in Irvine, a member of the audience asked me about blue laws. I thought it was an interesting question because it’s an issue that doesn’t come up that much these days.

There was a time when many states or local communities attempted to curb commerce on Sunday. After all, it was “the Lord’s Day.” You were supposed to attend church and then go home, not visit some mall and act like a shopaholic.

These laws are pretty anachronistic today and have mostly fallen by the wayside. What happened?

Contrary to what some believe, they were not blasted out of existence by the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court actually upheld blue laws in a 1961 case called McGowan v. Maryland. It’s not one of the court’s best church-state opinions. The justices held that while Sunday-closing laws may have originally had a religious purpose, they had become secular over the years. Their main purpose, the high court declared, was to give weary retail workers a day off.

The problem is, those workers weren’t actually getting a day off in many cases. In Maryland, where the McGowan case originated, many stores were open on Sunday – but you couldn’t buy certain items.

The laws simply made little sense. You could buy a Sunday newspaper, food and medicine but not household goods, toys or office supplies. The Maryland discount store that sparked the case had been fined for selling a stapler and a can of floor wax. It was illegal to sell these items on Sunday. (As an aside, consider this: Did law enforcement in the area really have nothing better to do than conduct undercover stings focused on floor wax sales?)

Legislators soon realized that the laws were silly and began changing them. There was an economic incentive as well. People were willing to cross state and county borders to shop on Sunday. Lawmakers and businesspeople were eager to keep those dollars in the local community. Blue laws slowly faded away.

An echo of them still exists today. In some states and counties, liquor sales are curtailed on Sundays or restricted to certain hours. Even these laws are increasingly controversial. Such a dispute is currently playing out in Cherokee County, Okla., where liquor stores are closed on Sundays, and sales of even low-content alcohol are forbidden in restaurants.

The debate seems to be breaking along familiar lines. The Tahlequah Daily Press reported that people in the area are focusing mainly on the possible economic benefit of permitting Sunday liquor sales.

I have occasionally heard Religious Right activists thunder against the demise of blue laws. They seem unaware that the statutes weren’t done in by the Supreme Court but died a natural death. People were given the opportunity to shop on Sundays (a day which, I need hardly point out, isn’t everyone’s Sabbath) and decided they’d like to make their own decisions about the matter.

That’s how it should be.

P.S. People sometimes wonder about the origins of the term “blue law.” For a long time, it was believed that the term derived from the fact that these laws were printed on blue paper. That doesn’t appear to be the case. No examples of laws like this being printed on blue paper have emerged. In fact, the term may be related to the usage of the word “blue” to mean “moral,” as in “bluenose.”