Never on a Sunday?: Mandatory Closing Laws Make Some S.C. Merchants Feel Blue

People sometimes think the Supreme Court did in blue laws, but in fact they are dying a natural death.

My wife went to grad school in North Carolina. She wasn't much of a drinker (at least that's what she tells me now), but she and her roommate did enjoy a bottle of wine with dinner every so often.

On Monday through Saturday, they could buy a bottle of vino any time the grocery store was open. On Sunday, they had to wait until noon. My wife remembers being forced once to wait 15 minutes before she could check out a large grocery order because her shopping cart included a bottle of wine.

Welcome to the wacky world of blue laws!

These laws either banned outright or greatly restricted commerce – and sometimes other activities – on Sunday, which most Christians honor as the Sabbath. (Most, but not all: Seventh-day Adventists and Seventh-day Baptists are two exceptions.) They are so named, as the story goes, from an antiquated definition of the word "blue" meaning "rigidly moralistic."

Blue laws have a long lineage in the United States. The Puritans loved them. In Puritan Massachusetts, a man named John Baker was caught hunting for birds on Sunday and sentenced to a public whipping. Fines became less severe over the years, but blue laws persisted and were often enforced with vigor.

Today blue laws are much less common. Recently, the town council in Aiken, S.C., voted 7-2 to do away with its blue laws, which prohibited stores from selling certain items before 1:30. Public schools in South Carolina rely in part on retail sales taxes for operating funds. The schools in Aiken were losing money because people were driving to nearby Augusta, Ga., to shop before 1:30. Pressure began building to ditch the laws.

"Both the North Augusta Chamber of Commerce and Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce have joined forces in supporting the repeal, believing that permitting Sunday sales will be a step in the right direction to provide much needed revenue to support this area's school children," reported the Aiken Standard.

People sometimes think the Supreme Court did in blue laws, but in fact they are dying a natural death. The Supreme Court actually upheld blue laws. In a rather poorly reasoned ruling from 1961, the high court held in McGowan v. Maryland that the purpose of these laws was not religious but to provide a day of rest for retail workers. That this day just happened to be the Christian Sabbath was entirely coincidental, of course.

Blue laws died because they are silly. Some products have to be sold on Sundays – newspapers, medicine, food, gasoline. A few jurisdictions tried to come up with lists of items that could or could not be sold but found they made no sense. In some states, for example, you could buy frozen food but not canned. (Why does it matter if the point was to provide workers a day of rest? If a store is open to sell even a few items, the clerks aren't getting a day off.)

Read the background of the McGowan case. The situation was ridiculous: The employees of a department store in Anne Arundel County, Md., were charged with selling a loose-leaf binder, a can of floor wax, a stapler and a toy submarine. Had they sold tobacco and food it would have been OK.

Can someone explain to me how this makes even a lick of sense? Also, did state officials really have nothing better to do with their time than entrap a store like this? How many serious lawbreakers went unmolested while officials plotted the great "floor wax sting"?

Americans' love of shopping sealed the deal. People would happily cross county or state borders to shop on Sunday. Naturally, merchants began clamoring for the right to open, arguing that profits that rightly belonged at home were being lost.

Some religious leaders still pine for the old days. The late Pope John Paul II was a big fan of blue laws, and TV preacher Pat Robertson occasionally longs for them as well, but by and large the issue has faded away. As the people of Aiken have learned, it simply doesn't make sense to maintain these laws.

The end of these laws is an interesting example of how an issue can be resolved in a way that favors separation of church and state without court mandates. If you happen to be enjoying a little wine with your dinner this Sunday, take a moment to toast the demise of blue laws.