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By Dave Roland
Contributing writer

Throughout history and today, many communities have enacted laws requiring businesses to close on Sundays. Known as “blue laws,” these regulations can cause controversy between those who say such laws favor religious groups and those who argue that blue laws are secularly oriented with civic rationales.

Long before the United States declared its independence from Great Britain, the American Colonies were governed by laws that required that Sunday be set aside as a day of rest and worship, in observance of the Christian Sabbath. The parliamentary laws minced no words in declaring the religious reasoning for the requirement. When the United States broke away from English governance and fashioned its own, most states created their own Sunday closing laws, which mirrored their British predecessors. At the same time, the creation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause and similar clauses in the various state constitutions called into question the constitutionality of Sunday closing laws that such religiously influenced laws might be impermissible.

In spite of this, the Sunday closing laws remained an unquestioned legal presence in many of the states. All across the young nation, state legislatures demonstrated few qualms about passing laws that required the closure of businesses on Sundays, just as the various courts of the age were nearly unanimous in the opinion that those laws should be enforced. It is clear that even though these laws (in their earliest forms) were clearly related to the observation of the Christian Sabbath, they were not seen as any sort of “establishment” of the Christian religion that would be unconstitutional under the First Amendment or other laws forbidding the establishment of religion.

President George Washington was charged with violating a Connecticut blue law in 1789, according to David N. Laband and Deborah Hendry Heinbuch, who cite a report on the incident in their 1987 book, Blue Laws: The History, Economics and Politics of Sunday-Closing Laws. Washington's travel from Connecticut to New York violated a law against unnecessarily walking or riding on Sunday. Ironically, he was on his way to church at the time. Washington was allowed to continue his journey only after promising to travel no farther than the town he intended to visit.

Early courts examined the rationales for such laws. Some of those courts explicitly recognized the religious purposes for the closing laws — that they protected the “Christian Sabbath” from being violated. Others (including all of the courts to have dealt with the issue in recent times) relied on secular reasoning, claiming that it was within the legislatures’ powers to proclaim a weekly day of rest for laborers, and that it was appropriate for that day to be the one preferred by the majority of the state’s citizens. Similarly, courts routinely rejected arguments that blue laws violated the consciences of those who were compelled by their religion to observe a different Sabbath than the one established by the state, even though it would put them at the disadvantage of having their businesses closed two days a week, rather than the one demanded of other citizens.

Confronting the issue directly in McGowan v. Maryland (1961) and three other cases, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld state legislatures’ rights to enact blue laws, so long as such laws had a secular purpose. The Court found that, though many Sunday closing laws are descended from religious traditions, the observance of Sunday as a day of rest or recreation is not inherently religious in nature. So long as the purpose of the law is not to advance any particular faith, the Court said, a legislature is permitted to make such regulations in pursuit of the health, safety and welfare of the public.

James McWilliams contributed to this article.

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