3 minute read

Braunfeld v. Brown


The Court considered whether a law which establishes a valid secular goal, but which results in indirect burdens for people of a particular religion, violates First Amendment rights to the freedom of religion. The Court decided that laws which do not prohibit the practice of a religion, even if they present related difficulties, cannot be considered unconstitutional.

"Blue laws" are state laws which prohibit non-essential or certain forms of commerce on Sundays, in order to create an uniform day of rest for the community. They have their origins in the colonial period, and were named for the color of the paper on which they were originally printed. In 1959, Pennsylvania passed just such a blue law, requiring shops and other businesses to remain closed on Sundays.

The appellant, Abraham Braunfeld, owned and operated a clothing and home furnishing store in Philadelphia. He was also an Orthodox Jew; his religion required him to observe the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, by engaging in no work and closing his shop. Because of the revenue lost on Friday evening and all day Saturday, Braunfeld relied on being open on Sundays. Braunfeld asserted that if he was required to also close his shop on Sundays, in accordance with the Pennsylvania blue law, he would necessarily suffer economic hardship, and would not be able to continue in his business. The appellant asserted that this interfered with his First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion. The case was dismissed at the state level and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The appellant in this case, as well as the appellants in Two Guys from Harrison-Allentown, Inc., v. McGinley argued that the Pennsylvania statute was an attempt to establish a religion, since the blue laws emerged from the Christian practice of refraining from work on Sunday. They also asserted that the statutes violated the Fourteenth Amendment, by not providing equal protection to people of different religious faiths. The Court had considered both of these arguments in Two Guys from Harrison-Allentown, Inc. v. McGinley, and had dismissed them as invalid. The Court had also found in McGowan v. Maryland, a related case, that the states had the right

to set one day of the week apart from the others as a day of rest, repose, recreation and tranquility, a day when the hectic tempo of everyday existence ceases and a more pleasant atmosphere is created, a day which all members of the family and community have the opportunity to spend and enjoy together.
This right, according to the Court, was a valid secular pursuit for states, and did not constitute the establishment of religion.

The question remaining before the Court, then, was whether or not the Pennsylvania blue law interfered with the appellant's free exercise of religion. The appellee did not dispute the appellant would suffer financially by being forced to close on Sunday. A significant amount of business was done on that day. On this question, the Court reaffirmed that

Certain aspects of religious exercise cannot, in any way, be restricted or burdened by either federal or state legislation.
While holding this true, the Court also stated,
the freedom to act, even when the action is in accord with one's religious convictions, is not totally free from legislative restrictions.

As long as the legislation was not directly interfering with religious practices, and was designed to promote some valid secular goal, it would not be considered unconstitutional. The Court asserted,

To strike down, without the most critical scrutiny, legislation which imposes only an indirect burden on the exercise of religion, i.e., legislation which does not make unlawful the religious practice itself, would radically restrict the operating latitude of the legislature.

Another example of an indirect burden on the practice of religion is tax laws which limit the deductions available for donations to religion. Although the blue law in question would make practicing Orthodox Judaism more expensive, it did not prevent Orthodox Jews from abiding by the tenets of that religion, including refraining from work on Saturdays.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1954 to 1962Braunfeld v. Brown - Significance, Impact, Blue Laws/morality Laws