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

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.

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.

In Boston, home of John Winthrop and Cotton Mather, Puritan traditions have thrived. Many recall days, just decades ago, when stores were shuttered on Sundays. "What did we do back then?" says Jerry Marks, a beer salesman in Randolph, Mass.

Laws making Sunday a day of rest began deteriorating during World War II, when women entered the manufacturing sector. "A hundred years ago, women could shop six days a week, and take the Sabbath off," says Laband. "Now, increasingly, shopping has become compressed into the weekend."

For store owners and managers, though, it's a mixed bag. Many in Boston doubt the new hours will increase sales; instead, liquor sales will be spread throughout the week, and owners will have to pay staff on Sundays. Stores can choose to remain closed, of course - but they risk losing their customer base if nearby competitors stay open.

Andrew Stern, manager of the Wine Emporium in Boston's South End neighborhood, says the family-run store will open on Sundays for a trial period to gauge cost-effectiveness. But he believes Sunday sales are in customers' best interests, and calls the repeal "part of this country's coming of age." "Everything else is open on Sundays," he says. "Why can't this be, too?"

Down the street looms the Union United Methodist Church, an imposing American Gothic cathedral. There, the Rev. Martin McLee worries that the repeal could make Sunday seem less sacred. "The sacredness of the Sabbath can be preserved, without crossing the line separating church and state," he says. "It has worked for centuries; why change now?"

While blue laws are most closely linked to Puritan New England, they've sparked debates nationwide, especially in the Bible Belt. "These 'don't laws' are being called into question across the South," says Robert Snyder, professor of American studies at the University of South Florida. "Part of the undercurrent here is that you can't legislate morality."

And these repeals may spur others. Already, 27 states have relaxed alcohol laws. "You have this domino effect because of cross-border sales," says Mr. Coleman. Connecticut's Gov. John Rowland said he'd support ending his state's ban - a day after Massachusetts' law took effect.

How secularization and diversity fit in

Like other battles between church and state, the repeal of remaining blue laws may be a sign of how secular America has become. "Religion doesn't play a central role in politics anymore," says Mr. Drummey. "This does represent a shift - more of a symbolic changeover from another time,"

And it's a sign, too, of America's growing pluralism. "The Sabbath was a time for religion, for family, to renew kinship bonds," says Dr. Snyder. "But religion isn't static in this country. Sunday, Christmas, Easter - these aren't necessarily the days of celebration for everybody anymore. [The repeals] show how dynamic society is, and how much things change."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to In battle for Sunday, the 'blue laws' are falling
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today