A blue law is a type of law in the United States and Canada designed to enforce moral standards, particularly the observance of Sunday as a day of worship or rest, and a restriction on Sunday shopping. Most have been repealed, declared unconstitutional or are simply unenforced, although prohibitions on the sale of alcoholic beverages, and occasionally almost all commerce, on Sundays are still enforced in many areas. Blue laws often prohibit an activity only during certain hours and there are usually exceptions to the prohibition of commerce, like grocery and drug stores. In some places blue laws may be enforced due to religious principles, but others are retained as a matter of tradition or out of convenience.
In the Cook Islands, blue laws were first written legislation, enacted by the London Missionary Society in 1827, with the consent of ariki (chiefs). In Tonga, the Vava'u Code (1839) was inspired by Methodist missionary teachings, and was a form of blue law. In Niue, certain activities remain forbidden on Sunday, reflecting the country's strong Christian heritage.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence to support the assertion that the blue laws were originally printed on blue paper. Rather, the word blue was commonly used in the 18th century as a disparaging reference to rigid moral codes and those who observed them (e.g., "bluenoses", blue movies). Moreover, although Reverend Peters claimed that the term blue law was originally used by Puritan colonists, his work has since been found to be unreliable, and it is more likely that he simply invented the term himself. In any event, Peters never asserted that the blue laws were originally printed on blue paper, and this has come to be regarded as an example of false etymology. Another version is that the laws were first bound in books with blue covers. (See related article: Blue Laws)
Southern and mid-western states also passed numerous laws to protect the Sabbath during the mid to late nineteenth century. Laws targeted numerous groups including saloon owners, Jews, Seventh-day Adventists, and non-religious peoples. These Sunday laws enacted at the state and local levels would sometimes carry penalties for doing non-religious activities on Sunday as part of an effort to enforce religious observance and church attendance. Numerous people were arrested for playing cards, baseball, and even fixing wagon wheels on Sunday. Some of these laws still exist today.
In Henry Taber's Faith or Fact, he writes:
The first observance of Sunday - that history records is in the fourth century', when Constantine issued an edict (not requiring its religious observance, but simply abstinence from work) reading, 'let all the judges and people of the town rest and all the various trades be suspended on the venerable day of the sun.' At the time of the issue of this edict, Constantine was a sun-worshiper; therefore it could have had no relation whatever to Christianity.
In Texas, for example, blue laws prohibited selling housewares such as pots, pans, and washing machines on Sunday until 1985. In Alabama,Arkansas,Colorado,Connecticut,Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, car dealerships continue to operate under blue-law prohibitions in which an automobile may not be purchased or traded on a Sunday. Maryland permits Sunday automobile sales only in the counties of Prince George's, Montgomery, and Howard. Texas and Utah prohibit car dealerships from operating over consecutive weekend days. In some cases these laws were created or retained with the support of those whom they affected, to allow them a day off each week without fear of their competitors still being open.
Many states still prohibit selling alcohol on Sunday, or at least before noon on Sunday, under the rationale that people should be in church on Sunday morning, or at least not drinking. At least one unusual feature of American culture—the ability to buy groceries, office supplies, and housewares from a drug store—can be traced to blue laws (under blue laws, drug stores are generally allowed to remain open on Sunday to accommodate emergency medical needs).
Blue laws may also prohibit retail activity on days other than Sunday. In Massachusetts and Connecticut, for example, blue laws dating to the Puritans of the 17th century still prohibit most retail stores, including grocery stores, from opening on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Seventh-day Adventists believe that Sunday worship will be legislated nationwide in the United States, and eventually world wide. Historically this was introduced into Seventh-day Adventist beliefs during its conception. It was stated that the Catholic church under the direction of the Pope will spearhead this legislation. It's believed that accepting this legislation—choosing to worship on Sunday vs. Saturday, and agreeing not to buy or sell on Sunday—is "taking the mark of the beast," the mark and the beast that is described in the book of Revelation in the Christian Bible. They believed persecution to the point of death will result from such legislation, and various Adventist-aligned ministries are known for their attempts to show the credulity of this belief today, despite statements by experts, Seventh-day Adventist leaders, and Seventh-day Adventist congressmen to the contrary. Some Adventists, in lieu of such statements, have opted for alternative views of the fulfillment of this prophecy.
However, repeated attempts to lift the law have failed as voters either see keeping the law on the books as a protest against the growing trend toward increasing hours and days of commercial activity in American society or enjoy the sharply reduced traffic on major roads and highways on Sunday that is normally seen the other days of the week. In fact, a large part of the reason for maintaining the laws has been a desire for relative peace and quiet one day of the week by many Bergen County residents.
This desire for relative peace is most apparent in Paramus, where some of the county's largest shopping malls are located, along the intersecting highways of Route 4 and Route 17, which are jam-packed on many Saturdays. Paramus has enacted blue laws of its own that are even more restrictive than those enforced by Bergen County, banning all forms of "worldly employment" on Sundays, including white collar workers in office buildings. Local Blue laws in Paramus were first proposed in 1957, while the Bergen Mall and Garden State Plaza were under construction. The legislation was motivated by fears that the two new malls would aggravate the already severe highway congestion caused by local retail businesses along the borough's highways.
As of today, South Carolina blue laws prohibit sporting events and most department stores from operating on Sundays before 1:30 PM, with a few exceptions for collegiate events. Alcohol in most counties is prohibited on Sunday.
From 1950 until 1983, the Southern 500 auto race in Darlington was held on Monday (Labor Day) because of blue laws; a 1983 NASCAR Budweiser Late Model Sportsman race at Darlington was 250 miles, not the traditional 200 miles, because it was run on the Sunday before the Southern 500, and state blue laws mandate a race distance of 250 miles for Sunday races. Also, the inaugural Rebel 300 resulted in a fine for track president Bob Colvin for holding it on a Sunday after the Saturday before was rained out; ironically, the Rebel 500 run 50 years later in 2007 was pushed from Saturday to Sunday and run at 1 PM, with the 250-mile exemption in place.
The 1978 Cooper River Bridge Run in Charleston was held on a Sunday, but drew complaints from churches; that led to the race being moved to Saturday in 1979, where it stands. The state's three marathons -- in Greenville, Kiawah Island, and Myrtle Beach -- are all held on Saturday. Myrtle Beach has a problem holding a marathon on Sunday because of numerous churches on the marathon courses. Greenville had been held on a Saturday in the first two years (2006-07) as that race can be held on Sunday because it runs through the Furman University campus. However, complaints have led the third Spinx Run Fest marathon in 2008 being moved to Saturday.
Prior to November 21, 2006 the city of Lubbock did not allow the sale of packaged alcohol within city limits on any day. This was was made farcical when the City Council voted 5-1 to annex to the city a section of land outside of the city limits, a privately owned conglomeration of liquor stores, called "The Strip" located on U.S. Highway 87 that sells packaged alcohol allowing the businesses to remain open and contributing a sales tax of 1.5%, or 10 cents for every 7 dollars, to the city.
The 5-1 vote made package alcohol sales legal within the city limits. There exist, however, significant barriers to entry for stores outside "The Strip" area to sell packaged alcohol. Due to City law, liquor sales will be limited to the newly annexed area.
Though within city limits, "The Strip" is exempt from the city's liquor laws.
The Supreme Court of Canada, in the case of R. v. Big M Drug Mart Ltd.,  (1 S.C.R. 295) ruled that the 1906 Lord's Day Act that required most places to be closed on Sunday did not have a legitimate secular purpose, and was an unconstitutional attempt to establish a religious-based closing law in violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, the court later concluded, in R. v. Edwards Books and Art Ltd.,  (2 S.C.R. 713) that Ontario's Retail Business Holiday Act, which required some Sunday closings, did not violate the Charter because it did not have a religious purpose.
The Supreme Court of the United States held in its landmark case, McGowan v. Maryland (1961), that Maryland's blue laws violated neither the Free Exercise Clause nor the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. It approved the state's blue law restricting commercial activities on Sunday, noting that while such laws originated to encourage attendance at Christian churches, the contemporary Maryland laws were intended to serve "to provide a uniform day of rest for all citizens" on a secular basis and to promote the secular values of "health, safety, recreation, and general well-being" through a common day of rest. That this day coincides with the Christian Sabbath is not a bar to the state's secular goals; it neither reduces its effectiveness for secular purposes nor prevents adherents of other religions from observing their own holy days. The status of blue laws vis-à-vis the Free Exercise Clause conceivably would have to be re-evaluated if challenged by an adherent of a religion which required the conduct of commerce on Sunday.
There were four landmark Sunday-law cases altogether in 1961. The other three were Gallagher v. Crown Kosher Super Market of Mass., Inc., 366 U.S. 617 (1961); Braunfeld v. Brown, 366 U.S. 599 (1961); Two Guys from Harrison vs. McGinley, 366 U.S. 582 (1961).
According to KVIA-TV El Paso, in March 2006 Texas judges upheld the state Blue Law that requires car dealerships to close either Saturday or Sunday each weekend.
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