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Blue laws, also known as Sunday laws, are laws designed to restrict or ban some or all Sunday activities for religious reasons, particularly to promote the observance of a day of worship or rest. Blue laws may also restrict shopping or ban sale of certain items on specific days, most often on Sundays in the western world. Blue laws are enforced in parts of the United States and Canada as well as some European countries, particularly in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Norway, keeping most stores closed on Sundays.
In the United States, the U.S. Supreme Court has held blue laws as constitutional numerous times, citing secular basis, even though the origin of the blue laws was for religious purposes. Blue laws are technically classed as "mala prohibita" or "wrong [as or because] prohibited" (as opposed to "mala in se" or "wrong or evil in itself"). Most blue laws have been repealed in the United States, although many states still ban the sale of alcoholic beverages or cars on Sundays. Bergen County, New Jersey is notable for their blue laws banning the sale of clothing, shoes, furniture, home supplies and appliances on Sundays kept through county-wide referendum.
The first occurrence of the phrase blue laws so far found is in the New-York Mercury of March 3, 1755, where the writer imagines a future newspaper praising the revival of "our Connecticut's old Blue Laws". In his 1781 book General History of Connecticut, the Reverend Samuel Peters (1735–1826) used it to describe various laws first enacted by Puritan colonies in the 17th century that prohibited various activities, recreational as well as commercial, on Sunday (Saturday evening through Sunday night). Sometimes the sale of certain types of merchandise was prohibited, and in some cases all retail and business activity.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence that blue laws were originally printed on blue paper. Rather, the word blue was used in the 17th century as a disparaging reference to rigid moral codes and those who observed them, particularly in blue-stocking, a reference to Oliver Cromwell's supporters in the parliament of 1653. 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. 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 of which is that the laws were first bound in books with blue covers.
As Protestant moral reformers organized the Sabbath reform in nineteenth-century America, calls for the enactment and/or enforcement of stricter Sunday laws developed. Numerous Americans were arrested for working, keeping an open shop, drinking alcohol, traveling, and recreating on Sundays. Beginning in the 1840s, Catholic immigrants, workingmen, Jews, Seventh Day Baptists, free-thinkers, and other groups began to organize opposition. Throughout the century, Sunday laws served as a major source of church-state controversy and as an issue that drove the emergence of modern American minority-rights politics.
The Lord's Day Act, which since 1906 had prohibited business transactions from taking place on Sundays, was declared unconstitutional in the 1985 case R. v. Big M Drug Mart Ltd. Calgary police officers witnessed several transactions at the Big M Drug Mart, all of which occurred on a Sunday. Big M was charged with a violation of the Lord's Day Act. A provincial court ruled that the Lord's Day Act was unconstitutional, but the Crown proceeded to appeal all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. In a unanimous 6–0 decision, the Lord's Day Act was ruled an infringement of the freedom of conscience and religion defined in section 2(a) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
A Toronto referendum in 1950 allowed only team sports to be played professionally on Sunday. Theatre performances, movie screenings, and horse racing were not permitted until the 1960s.
The Supreme 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. Nonetheless, as of today, virtually all provincial Sunday Closing laws have ceased to exist. Some were struck down by provincial courts, but most were simply abrogated, often due to competitive reasons where out-of-province or foreign merchants were open.
Cook Islands, Tonga and Niue
In the Cook Islands, blue laws were the 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 history of observing Christian Sabbath tradition.
In Denmark the closing laws restricting retail trade on Sundays have been abolished with effect from October 1, 2012. From then on retail trade is only restricted on public holidays (New Years Day, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Easter Monday, Day of Prayer, Ascension Day, Whit Sunday, Whit Monday, Christmas Day and Boxing Day) and on Constitution Day, Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve (on New Year's Eve from 3 pm only). On these days almost all shops will remain closed. Exempt are bakeries, DIYs, garden centres, gas stations and smaller supermarkets.
England and Wales
Prior to 1994, trading laws forbade sale of certain products on a Sunday; the distinction between those you could and couldn't buy was increasingly seen as arbitrary, and the laws were inadequately enforced and widely flouted. For example, some supermarkets would treat the relatively modest fines arising as a business cost and open nonetheless.
The Sunday Trading Act 1994 relaxed restrictions on Sunday trading. This produced vocal opposition from bodies such as the Keep Sunday Special campaign, and the Lord's Day Observance Society: on religious grounds, on the grounds that it would increase consumerism, and that it would reduce shop assistants' weekend leisure time.
The legislation permits large shops (those with a relevant floor area in excess of 280 square metres) to open for up to six hours on Sunday between the hours of 10 am and 6 pm. Small shops, those with an area of below 280 square metres, are free to set their own Sunday trading times. Some large shops, such as off-licences, service stations and garages, are exempt from the restrictions.
Some very large shops (e.g. department stores) open for longer than 6 hours on a Sunday by allowing customers in to browse 30 minutes prior to allowing them to make a purchase, since the 6 hour restriction only applies to time during which the shop may make sales.
Christmas Day and Easter Sunday are non-trading days. This applies even to garden centres, which earlier had been trading over Easter, but not to small shops (those with an area of below 280 square metres).
Shops with a floor area of over 280 square meters may only open from 1 to 6pm on Sundays.
Many states prohibit selling alcohol for on and off-premises sales in one form or another on Sundays at some restricted time, under the idea that people should be in church on Sunday morning, or at least not drinking.
Another feature of blue laws in the United States restricts the purchase of particular items on Sundays. Some of these laws restrict the ability to buy cars, groceries, office supplies, and housewares among other things. Though most of these laws have been relaxed or repealed in most states, they are still enforced in some other states.
In Texas, for example, blue laws prohibited selling housewares such as pots, pans, and washing machines on Sunday until 1985. In Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma, New Jersey, 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 Charles, Prince George's, Montgomery, and Howard; similarly, Michigan restricts Sunday sales to only those counties with a population of less than 130,000. 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.
Blue laws may also prohibit retail activity on days other than Sunday. In Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Maine (which was previously part of Massachusetts), for example, blue laws prohibit most retail stores, including grocery stores, from opening on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, religious and ethno-cultural minorities arrested for violating state and local blue laws appealed their convictions to state supreme courts. In Specht v. Commonwealth (1848), for example, German Seventh Day Baptists in Pennsylvania employed attorney Thaddeus Stevens to challenge the constitutionality of Pennsylvania's Sunday law. As in cases in other states, litigants pointed to the provisions of state constitutions protecting religious liberty and maintained that Sunday laws were a blatant violation. Though typically unsuccessful (most state supreme courts upheld the constitutionality of Sunday laws), these constitutional challenges helped set a pattern by which subsequent moral minorities would seek to protect religious freedom and minority rights.
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 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.
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).
In March 2006, Texas judges upheld the state blue law that requires car dealerships to close either Saturday or Sunday each weekend.
- Dry county
- National Sunday Law
- Raines law
- Religious coercion
- Religious law
- Sunday shopping
- Sundown town
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