When Traditional Becomes Radical

Closing on Sundays used to be easier.

Towns passed laws requiring it, and, perhaps reaching back to their Puritan roots, Americans accepted it.

"For most of the 18th and 19th centuries, the United States was probably the world's strictest Sabbath-keeping nation," says Winton Solberg, professor emeritus of history at the University of Illinois and author of a 1977 book on the subject. "You didn't have movies on Sunday.... Most retail establishments were tied up as tight as a drum. Trains didn't run on Sunday for a long time."

Crumbling standards

But with increased urbanization and an influx of European Catholics during the 1920s, the strict standards of Protestant America began to crumble. "It isn't that [Catholics] were less religious, but they saw [Sunday] as a celebration," says Paul Zbiek, chairman of the history department at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

Sunday shopping accelerated in the 1950s as suburbs and malls became popular. By the 1980s, most restrictions - blue laws - were on their way out.

Today, European countries such as Germany are far more restrictive about Sunday shopping than is the US - a complete reversal from the last century.

Keeping the faith

Nevertheless, some American localities cling to Sunday restrictions. Paramus and the rest of Bergen County, N.J., outside New York City keep their stores closed. Chattanooga, Tenn., prohibits most Sunday business before noon.

Many business owners don't complain about the law. "We are in the "Bible belt," and we are a very strong church community," says Geri Spring of the Chattanooga Institute, a development group. "We're just so accustomed to it."

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