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R.I. blue laws may be on the way out

By The Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Jim Botvin, the owner of Colonial Toyota in Pawtucket, has spent some Sundays at his dealership, but all he can do is give customers a business card and a request: Come back on Monday.

"They say, 'Can't you just open the door and sell us a car?' I say, 'I can't. I'm prohibited by law.' They think we're kidding," he said.

For Botvin and others who want to lift restrictions on how businesses operate on Sundays, customers' reactions are proof that Rhode Island's lingering blue laws are outdated. As a number of states roll back their restrictions on Sunday commerce, Rhode Island lawmakers are considering bills that would lift the ban on selling automobiles on Sunday and would extend the hours other retailers could be open.

Rhode Island, bill proponents say, is behind its neighbors on removing Sunday sales restrictions, and businesses are suffering.

Botvin said his Massachusetts competitors tell him they do at least 16% of their weekly business on Sundays. Some even use the extra day as a marketing tool, calling it "Rhode Island Day" in newspaper ads.

For Paul DeRoche, president of the Rhode Island Retailers Association and vice president of government affairs for the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, the frustration comes with watching the mall parking lots in places like North Attleboro, Mass., fill up on Sundays.

"Right now in Rhode Island, retailers can only operate on Sunday from 12 o'clock to 6 o'clock, and that makes the retailers in Rhode Island very noncompetitive," he said. "People want to shop when they want to shop."

That's probably true, agrees Rev. John Holt, president of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, but it's a development he finds rather sad.

Though Holt’s belief in the separation of church and state means he does not oppose lifting restrictions on Sunday sales, he said, he's troubled by the trend the changes suggest.

"I'm concerned about the fact that our society today doesn't rest," he said. "We need more family time and maybe less shopping time and maybe less running-around-like-chickens-with-our-heads-cut-off time."

Blue laws, which date from Colonial times and are often attributed to Puritan sensibilities, once banned a wide variety of commercial and leisure activities on Sundays.

Many have been repealed or relaxed, but in many states some restrictions remain.

Holt recalled Sundays from his own childhood. Stores were closed and the day's agenda included church, a meal at home, visits from relatives and, for his parents, an afternoon nap.

"Having a law won't promote that or not promote that," Holt said. But, he said, "it's just another kind of indication of what we value."

Rep. Peter Kilmartin sponsored two bills this year to lift blue laws, which are both being considered by lawmakers.

Kilmartin said he too was somewhat saddened by how Sunday has changed. But the change is deeply rooted in how people live and work now, he said.

In most cases, both members of a couple work, he said. Sunday is one of the few times they can get together to make a major purchase.

"The fact of the matter is you can't stop this right now," he said.

Even so, most of Rhode Island's new-car dealers are not convinced. Jack Perkins, executive vice president of the Rhode Island Automobile Dealers Association, said a survey of the trade group's membership found more than 75% opposed lifting the Sunday auto-sales ban.

"They believe that they're open plenty of hours already," he said. "Opening on Sunday will simply spread their current sales over seven days rather than the six they're open."

Costs would go up, he said, and employees who value their free Sundays will now have to work. Dealers wouldn't have to open on Sunday, but some dealers fear that if they don’t, they'll lose out to the competition, Perkins said.

Those who support rolling back blue laws note that Rhode Island's small size means it's not difficult to cross the state line into Connecticut or Massachusetts to take advantage of more friendly Sunday sales laws.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Rhode Island is one of nine states banning Sunday car sales. Texas prohibits selling motor vehicles on a consecutive Saturday and Sunday, meaning dealers must take off one weekend day.

Jeanne Mejeur, research manager for NCSL, said bans on Sunday liquor and car sales seem to be the blue laws that last the longest, even as a number of states have rolled them back.

Competition from across state lines was what helped persuade legislators to lift Rhode Island's ban on Sunday liquor sales. Nearly a year ago, the state began permitting liquor stores to open on Sundays, though many still decline to do so. That move came just months after Massachusetts made the same move.

For Botvin, that makes the ban on car sales all the more bitter.

"You can buy a gun in Rhode Island, you can go to adult entertainment, you can go to a gambling casino, you can buy liquor," he said. "You can buy a house, but you can't buy a car."


Judge halts Virginia's 'day-of-rest' law

Circuit Court Judge T.J. Markow grants emergency injunction to block legislative glitch that guaranteed workers either Saturday or Sunday off. 07.04.04

Kansas liquor laws soon may mirror most in nation
Bill to remove ban on Sunday sales at liquor stores would bring state law in line with court rulings that have allowed 23 cities, two counties to authorize such sales. 05.12.05

Holiday spirits capped in states with 'blue laws'
Christmas Eve, New Year's revelers will have to stock up a day early if they want to celebrate at home by raising a glass. 12.22.06

Blue laws

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