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In battle for Sunday, the 'blue laws' are falling

By Sara B. MillerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 5, 2003

Whippings, fines, burnt tongues, severed ears: such were the Puritans' penalties for breaches of the Sabbath. Under the "blue laws" of the 1700s, the punishments could be invoked for simple misdeeds ranging from shuffleboard to skipping church.

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Most colonial edicts have gone the way of scarlet letters. But one has remained intact in states from Connecticut to Texas: the ban on Sunday sales of alcohol. Now, a stubborn seam of Puritanical America is coming undone.

With Gov. Mitt Romney's decision last week, Massachusetts joined five states that have relaxed bans on Sunday sales in the past 18 months.

Today, as the United States marks the 70th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition, supporters of the repeal call this trend the natural confluence of flagging state economies and a steady erosion of antiquated blue laws.

Critics decry it as an attack on the Sabbath - and on leisure itself. And both sides agree it's a further indication that Sunday is becoming just an ordinary day.

"The lifting of blue laws, in their own way, seems to de-emphasize religion, as well as close family, community, and neighborhood ties," says David Laband, an economics and policy professor at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., and author of "Blue Laws: The History, Economics and Politics of Sunday-Closing Laws." "It is part of a broader social and cultural trend toward isolation."

To be sure, recent repeals are the consequence of state budget gaps, not a simple relaxation of the nation's moral code. The Massachusetts plan was part of a $100 million stimulus package that included spending and tax credits. New York, Delaware, and Pennsylvania have also lifted regulations on Sunday alcohol sales this year, with the aim of raising tax revenues.

"The states are in their worst fiscal shape in recent history," says Frank Coleman, senior vice president of the Washington-based Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. The national trade association estimates that sales in Massachusetts could generate $1.5 million to $2.1 million in new tax revenue for the state.

A lost battle of Guinness vs. God?

Still, some observers in the religious community wonder whether this is another lost battle between commercialization and God. Sunday is already the second-busiest shopping day of the week, after Saturday. "We saw the remaining liquor laws as a last vestige [of Sunday rest]. We see an unfortunate slippage into every day being the same," says the Rev. Diane Kessler, the executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. "Consumerism ... is in danger of becoming an idolatry."

Prohibition diminution

Most blue laws - which included bans on Sunday travel, hair-cutting, and sweeping the house - had waned by the time of the American Revolution.

But those on alcohol, and those setting aside Sunday as a day of rest, gained prominence in temperance movements throughout the 19th century, says Peter Drummey, librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Many remained intact even after the 21st amendment ended Prohibition in 1933, giving states control of alcohol laws.