Origins of Blue Laws in America

Sabbath Laws & Blue Laws in American History

Close-Up Of Closed Sign At Store
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Blue laws, or Sabbath laws, are attempts by some Christians to enforce a traditional Christian Sabbath as a legally mandated day of rest for everyone. Courts have permitted this, but it violates church-state separation for laws to give Sundays to those churches which treat it as special — priests have no business calling upon our government to give them and their religious sects privileged status. Sundays, like every other day of the week, belong to everybody — not just to Christian churches.

Origins of Blue Laws

It has often been said that if you want to know where a law is going, then you should look at where it has come from. In America, the earliest Sunday-closing laws date back to 1610 in the colony of Virginia. They included not simply the mandatory closing of businesses on Sundays, but also mandatory church service participation. Considering the comments made by some religious leaders today when they complain about the competition they have on Sundays, I have to wonder if they wouldn't approve of such steps again.

In the New Haven colony, the list of activities prohibited on Sundays was supposedly written on blue paper, thus giving us the notorious phrase "blue laws." The process of the American Revolution and the crafting of our Constitution tended over time to disestablish churches throughout the new states, thus also eliminating "blue laws" (this will come as a shock to those who advocate the myth that America was founded as a "Christian Nation"). However, blue laws did linger on in various forms in a number of areas.

Opposition to restrictive blue laws has always come from a variety of sources, with religious groups often standing at the forefront of dissent. Jews were among the earliest protestors of mandatory Sunday-closing ordinances — closing on Sundays caused them obvious economic hardships since they normally closed on Saturdays for their sabbath. Of course, there is also the serious issue of their being forced to observe, even if in a limited fashion, the Sabbath of someone else's religion. Jews have long suffered from such problems when living in societies which assume Christianity is the "norm" and legislate appropriately.

Catholics and most Protestants claim to follow the "true" Sabbath on Sundays, but some minority Christian groups take their doctrines from very early Christian practices: prior to 200 C.E., Saturday was the Christian Sabbath. Even into the fourth century, different churches might observe either or even both days as the Sabbath. For this reason, some Christian groups in America have also opposed Sunday-closing laws — notably Seventh-day Adventists and Seventh-day Baptists. They, too, observe their Sabbath on Saturdays and SDA congregations were sometimes arrested en masse when engaging in proscribed activities on Sundays.

Thus, Christian claims of adhering to a holy day mandated by their god stand on shaky ground. Fundamentalist Protestants who commonly advocate breaches in church/state separation such as represented by blue laws conveniently ignore the fact that their proposals not only trample upon the rights of other theists (like Jews) but also other Christians.

Legal Challenges to Blue Laws

With such opposition, it isn't unsurprising that blue laws have been challenged in the courts. Although the first Supreme Court challenge was not brought by either a Jew or a Christian minority sect, it did involve what was to be the ultimate downfall of a legally enforced Sabbath: commerce. By 1961, when the Supreme Court decided its first modern Sabbatarian case, most states had already started easing restrictions and granting a variety of exemptions. This enhanced freedom, but it also created a patch-work of laws and regulations which were all but impossible to follow.

Consolidating two different complaints — one from Maryland and one from Pennsylvania — the Court ruled 8-1 that laws mandating that businesses be closed on Sundays do not violate the Constitution. This was one of the lowest moments regarding church-state separation with our highest Court because the justices completely set aside the First Amendment and lamely held that blue laws had become "secularized" over the years, even though the purpose had been religious. This sounds suspiciously like the reasoning behind rulings which allow the "secularized" display of religious icons during Christmas or a "secular" Ten Commandments.

It was poor logic and even worse legal interpretation, but it couldn't save the blue laws in the face of rampant secularization across society. America's blue laws had to fade away as the public came to want to shop on Sundays and retailers, ever anxious to increase sales and profits, urged local and state governments to change or eliminate the restrictive ordinances. There was natural opposition to these changes on the part of religious leaders, but their best efforts were of little effect against the will of the people who want to shop — a lesson priests and religious demagogues keep having to relearn.

The stores opened up on Sundays, and a willing public came to shop — not because of the dictates of evil, atheist Supreme Court, but instead because it was what "we the people" wanted to do. Even to this day, the Christian Right has trouble understanding this. In his 1991 tirade The New World Order, evangelist Pat Robertson falsely accused the Supreme Court of having eliminated blue laws in the very 1961 case in which they upheld them.