Blue law

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A blue law, in the United States and Canada, is a type of law designed to enforce moral standards, particularly the observance of the Sabbath. Most have been repealed or are simply unenforced, although prohibitions of the sale on Sundays of alcoholic beverages, automobiles, and occasionally almost all commerce, are still enforced in some areas. Blue laws often prohibit an activity only during certain hours and there are usually exceptions to the prohibition of commerce, like stores selling essential items such as food and medicines. Places that still have and enforce blue laws generally have strong religious fundamentalism, but some have been retained as a matter of tradition or out of convenience. [1] American society has grown to include a wide diversity of religious beliefs, some of which regard days other than Sunday as the Sabbath, and those who do not regard Sabbath observance as foundational to faith in the divine. For such people, living under blue laws is minimally an inconvenience, and for some the imposition of state control over their way of life. While the historical reason for such laws is grounded in religious belief and practice, arguments for the preservation of such laws are often based on "quality of life" issues. Ultimately, the existence of such laws can only be justified if all members of the society accept the reasoning behind them and accept that such a lifestyle contributes to the betterment of humankind as a whole.

Coining the term "Blue Law"

The term blue law may have been first used by Reverend Samuel Peters (1735-1826) in his book, General History of Connecticut first published in 1781, to refer to various laws first enacted by Puritan colonies in the seventeenth century prohibiting the selling of certain types of merchandise or business activity of any kind on certain days of the week, usually Sunday.

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 eighteenth century as a disparaging reference to rigid moral codes and those who observed them ("bluenoses"). Another version is that the laws were first bound in books with blue covers. 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[2]. 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 fake etymology.


Whatever the origin of the term, the measures, based on the biblical injunction prohibiting work on the Sabbath, have been traced back to fourth-century Rome and the first Christian emperor Constantine I's edict that all citizens must rest on Sunday. Farmers, however, were exempt. Many European countries still place strong restrictions on store opening hours on Sundays, an example being Germany's Ladenschlussgesetz.

The first blue law in America was enacted in the colony of Virginia in the early 1600s, and required attendance at church on Sunday. Subsequently, blue laws were passed in the majority of states, with different restrictions on Sunday activities. Some common restrictions included retail sales, general labor, liquor sales, various sports, and barbering.

Southern and mid-western states 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. The Sabbath laws were an excellent example of state and local governments trying to socially control citizens by punishing them for doing non-religious activities on Sunday. Numerous people were arrested for playing cards, baseball, and even fixing wagon wheels on Sunday. Some of these laws still exist today, although their enforcement has declined substantially.

In Texas, for example, blue laws prohibited selling house wares such as pots, pans, and washing machines on Sunday until 1985. Texas as well as Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania car dealerships have continued to operate under blue-law prohibitions in which an automobile may not be purchased or traded on a Sunday. Many U.S. states maintain prohibition on the sale of alcohol on Sunday, or at least before noon on Sunday.

Many unusual features of American culture — such as the fact that one can buy groceries, office supplies, and house wares from a drug store — are the result of blue laws, as drug stores were generally allowed to remain open on Sunday to accommodate emergency medical needs. The ubiquitous "weekend" is also a result of blue laws, although it is practiced nearly worldwide, except in some Islamic countries, which have their weekend on Thursday and Friday, and in Israel, where the weekend is from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.

Bergen County, New Jersey

One of the last remaining blue laws in the United States, that covers virtually all selling, is found in New Jersey. The Bergen County law has produced the ironic situation that one of the largest and most popular commercial shopping cores of the New York metropolitan area is almost completely closed on Sunday (only grocery stores are allowed to operate). Furthermore, Bergen County has significant Jewish and Muslim populations whose observant members would not be celebrating their Sabbath on Sunday with most of their Christian brethren. The substantial Orthodox Jewish minority is placed in the position of being unable to shop either on Sunday (due to the blue laws) or on Saturday (due to religious observance).

However, repeated attempts to lift the law have failed, as many locals 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 to enjoy the sharply reduced traffic on major roads and highways that is normally seen on 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, New Jersey, where some of the county's largest shopping malls are located. Paramus has blue laws of its own, that are even more restrictive than those enforced by Bergen County.

Court cases

The Supreme Court of Canada, in the case of Her Majesty The Queen in Right of Canada v. Big M Drug Mart Ltd., [1985] (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., [1986] (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 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. While such laws originated to encourage attendance at Christian churches, the contemporary Maryland laws were intended 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 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.

In El Paso, as recently as March 2006, Texas judges were still ruling to uphold the state Blue Law that requires car dealerships to close one day each weekend. They must now choose to open either Saturday or Sunday.


While the origin of the term "Blue Law" can be debated, the original purpose of the laws is clear. These laws were passed as a governmental enforcement of the Christian practice of honoring one day as a day of worship and rest. This followed naturally from the social practices of the colonizing Europeans, most of whom observed Sunday as the Sabbath, despite their denominational differences.

As American society has grown more diverse these laws have faded away, and in many places been erased. In areas where these blue laws are still enforced, they have come under fire, and nonreligious justifications must be found to support them, even though the original underpinnings were religious. Many argue that these laws go against the freedoms of people where there is no agreement on which day should function as the "day of rest," or even whether to have such a day at all (for whatever reasons, religious or secular).

Those promoting the "National Sunday Law" wish to force all Americans to obey the moral codes of one group. The framers of the Constitution sought to avoid the national devisiveness such legislation would cause, leaving the determination of such practices to familes and lower level governments. However, even in small communities, as homgeneity has been greatly reduced, such laws are becoming more controversial and divisive.


  1. Encyclopedia Britannica, Columbia Encyclopedia and The Reader's Companion to American History,
  2. American "blue laws" were so named because they were originally printed on blue paper., accessed July 12, 2006

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Jones, Alonzo T. The National Sunday Law: Argument of Alonzo T. Jones before the United States Senate Committee on Education and Labor, Dec. 13, 1888. Teach Services: 1996. ISBN 1572580569

External link

All links retrieved February 8, 2022.


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