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Blue Laws

A state or local law that prohibits commercial activities on Sunday.

Blue laws have been part of U.S. LEGAL HISTORY since the colonial period. These laws, which today are usually referred to as Sunday closing laws, prohibit certain types of commercial activity on Sundays. Originally these laws were directed at personal activities regarded as moral offenses, such as gambling or the consumption of alcohol. In the nineteenth century, however, state and local governments passed laws that forbade businesses from operating on Sunday. Although these laws were clearly based on Christian beliefs, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that they do not violate the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. Many blue laws have been repealed since the 1960s, but some laws that ban the sale of alcohol on Sunday remain in force.

In 1781, the Reverend Samuel Peters published A General History of Connecticut, in which he used the term blue laws to refer to a set of laws that the Puritans had enacted in the 1600s to control morality. He claimed that the laws were printed on blue paper, hence the terminology. Historians, however, have concluded that this claim was false, as were many of the laws he purported to have discovered. Some have speculated that the use of the word blue came from a connotation that suggested a rigidly moral position, akin to the term bluenose that refers to a prudish, moralistic person.

The decline of Puritanism and religious-based governments in the 1700s signaled a decline in laws that banned personal activities on Sunday. Many states and towns, however, passed laws to forbid merchants and laborers from working on Sunday. These laws were not based on concerns that workers deserved a day of rest. Instead, they were meant to respect the Christian Sabbath. In the nineteenth century, the enactment of these laws proceeded west with the expansion of the United States. By the late 1850s, the courts had been called upon to analyze the effect of blue laws on liability issues. For example, in Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad Co. v. Philadelphia and Havre de Grace Steam Towboat Co., 64 U.S. (23 How.) 209 (1859), the U.S. Supreme Court held that a railroad that left debris in the water is not excused for damage to a commercial boat that sailed on Sunday. The Court reasoned that boats are works of necessity that are not bound by Sunday closing laws.

The rise of the TEMPERANCE MOVEMENT after the Civil War led to the passage of many blue laws that forbade the sale of liquor on Sunday, whether in a bar or in a retail store. These prohibitions sometimes banned the sale of tobacco products and by the late nineteenth century, certain public entertainments were not allowed on Sunday. After the failure of PROHIBITION and the legalization of alcoholic beverages in 1933, many states and localities used their blue laws to prevent the operation of liquor stores and bars on Sunday.

Between 1859 and 1900, the Supreme Court heard eight cases involving blue laws. In Soon Hing v. Crowley, 113 U.S. 703, 5 S. Ct. 730. 28 L.Ed. 1145 (1885), the Court upheld a law that barred physical labor on Sunday. The Court concluded that the law was intended to prevent undue physical labor rather than promote religion. This was the first decision that examined whether a Sunday closing law was based on religious grounds. Other decisions during this period found the court validating jury verdicts made on Sunday and determining that the operation of a barber shop on Sunday was not a "work of necessity" that exempted the shop from a blue law.

During the early twentieth century many blue laws were amended to permit exemptions. Over time these exemptions produced a bewildering set of rules that appeared ARBITRARY and at times absurd. For example, a hardware store could be open on Sundays, and the proprietor could sell nails, but not hammers. After WORLD WAR II and expansion of U.S. consumer culture, Sunday closing laws were repealed, or were not enforced for commerce that did not involve the sale of alcohol. Nevertheless, non-Christians and some business owners chafed under the restrictions that remained in force.

The Supreme Court resolved the constitutionality of blue laws in McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U.S. 420, 81 S.Ct. 1101, 6 L.Ed.2d 393 (1961). The state of Maryland mandated that many businesses must be closed on Sunday. Occupations of necessity or charity were exempted from the law, which included hospitals. Department stores could open on Sunday, but only certain retail items could be sold on that day: tobacco products, candy, milk, bread, fruit, gasoline, oils, greases, drugs, medicines, newspapers, and magazines. Maryland fined the employees of a department store for selling items not on the exempted list. These items included a notebook, a can of floor wax, a stapler and staples, and a toy submarine. The employees appealed their convictions all the way to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Maryland blue law violated the EQUAL PROTECTION and DUE PROCESS clauses of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT as well as the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. They contended that the law was based on specific religious beliefs and compelled all persons to minimally observe the Christian day of worship.

The Court rejected these arguments and upheld the law. Chief Justice EARL WARREN, writing for the majority, acknowledged that the law and other similar laws had originally been enacted for religious purposes. He concluded, however, that the Sunday closing laws had evolved into further secular ends and that this defeated an Establishment Clause claim. The Court, in reviewing the history of blue laws, ruled that nonreligious reasons for the laws had been propounded since the 1700s. Secular argument for blue laws included the idea that it was good for the government to encourage people to take a day off work for rest and relaxation. In addition, the Court ruled that the employees could not make an Establishment Clause claim because they did not allege that their religious freedom had been infringed. They had only claimed the law had caused them economic harm. The Court, however, did not address how the secular goals it described were achieved when the law merely banned the sale of certain retail items. Justice WILLIAM O. DOUGLAS filed a dissenting opinion in which he argued that the state had no business restricting innocent acts because they offended the "sentiments of their Christian neighbors." In his view the law violated the Establishment Clause.

Since this decision the Supreme Court has not revisited blue laws. As long as these laws can be supported by a secular purpose they will be viewed as constitutional. In the 40 years since McGowan, however, most states and localities have abandoned enforcement of blue laws. The one exception remains the sale of alcohol on Sundays by liquor stores.


Andrus, Silas. 1999. The Blue Laws. Storrs, Conn.: Bibliopola Press.

"The First Amendment Religion Clauses and Labor and Employment Law in the Supreme Court, 1984." 1986. New York Law School Law Review 31 (winter).

Raucher, Alan. 1994. "Sunday Business and the Decline of Sunday Closing Laws: A Historical Overview." Journal of Church and State 36 (winter).

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