What are Blue Laws?

Jen asks: What are “Blue Laws” and how did they come to be?

lawRooted in the basic Christian tenet that Sunday is to be reserved as “the Lord’s day,” blue laws were originally enacted across the United States to encourage church attendance and restrict activity only to that worthy (at least according to some) of observation on the Sabbath. Transformed over time from a religious proscription to simply reflecting the values of a given community, today blue laws continue to prohibit otherwise legal activities in many places across the country.

The first blue law, although not called that at the time, was enacted in colonial Virginia in 1610, and it mandated church attendance (at both morning and afternoon services) on Sundays; a first-time offender lost his “provision and allowance for the whole week.”  Those who committed a second offense, in addition to losing his “allowance,” would be whipped. A third violation was, supposedly, punished by death, though there is debate over whether accounts of early blue laws were in some cases exaggerated or not.

In addition to requiring religious observation, blue laws also prohibited unseemly behavior, including drinking and other recreational activities. In fact, one sailor, who had returned to Boston in 1656 after three years at sea, was locked in the stocks for kissing his wife upon his return – which happened to occur on the Sabbath.

In some places, these Draconian laws were extended to cover offensive conduct throughout the week; for example, a late 18th century Puritanical colony in New Haven, Connecticut regulated the sale and consumption of alcohol, swearing, lying and even playing games (like cards). Furthermore, in addition to mandating church attendance on the Sabbath, those New Haven-ites who were foolish enough to violate these laws on Sundays supposedly suffered severe penalties, including large fines, being confined in stocks, whipping, amputation and even death.

During the temperance movement of the 19th century, new life was breathed into the idea of blue laws, and many communities and states enacted laws banning the sale of both tobacco and alcohol, as well as “unnecessary labor,” on Sundays. Some areas even prohibited certain forms of entertainment, including performances.

As for the name, the precise origin of the term, “blue laws,” is unclear. One of the first instances of this term was in the 1781 book written by the Reverend Samuel Peters, A General History of Connecticut, where he also provided the synonym for “Blue Laws”: “Bloody Laws; for they were all sanctified with excommunication, confiscation, fines, banishments, whippings, cutting off the ears, burning the tongue, and death.” As noted, while it is debated whether many of these blue laws were exaggerated or in some cases completely fabricated (not unlike the myth that lords used to bed all brides in their fiefdoms on their wedding nights- Jus Primae Noctis, First Night), what is no longer debated is the theory that the name came from the blue paper on which the laws were supposedly printed; there is simply no evidence to support such a theory. A much better theory as to the origin of the name is that it came from the 18th century slang usage of the word “blue” as meaning something to the effect of puritanical, or otherwise overly-rigid in moral matters.

Whatever the case, blue laws continued to be popular well into the 20th century, and some have even survived constitutional (i.e., separation of church and state) grounds. For example, in McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U.S. 420 (1961), the United States Supreme Court upheld a Maryland law that banned the sale of most merchandise (other than milk, bread, fruit, gas and other petroleum products, medicines, newspapers and, notably, tobacco). While acknowledging that the original laws were “motivated by religious forces,” the Court concluded that “in light of the evolution of our Sunday Closing Laws . . . and of their more or less recent emphasis on secular considerations [including a day of rest for labor], it is not difficult to discern . . . that presently they bear no relationship to establishment of religion . . . .”

Since then, many blue laws have been upheld in state court challenges, including in New Hampshire (1967), North Dakota (1970), South Carolina (1970), Vermont (1970), Iowa (1971) Arkansas (1973), Maryland (1974), Mississippi (1975), Maine (1976), Texas (1976), Massachusetts (1977), Virginia (1977) and New Jersey (1978).

However, others have been struck down, in whole or in part, in Illinois (1962), Kansas (1964), Wyoming (1964), Kentucky (1966), Nebraska (1966), Washington (1966), Louisiana (1968), Minnesota (1968), Utah (1971), North Carolina (1972), Oklahoma (1972), Georgia (1975), Alabama (1976), New York (1976) and Pennsylvania (1978).

Today, only a handful of blue laws remain, and most of these regulate the sale of alcohol. For example, many states limit its sale on Sunday, either all day or for a limited duration, from package stores or entirely, including Arkansas (sales prohibited), Indiana (most sales prohibited, with exceptions for restaurants, taverns and local breweries), Maine (no sales between 1 a.m. and 9 a.m.), Minnesota (no sales from liquor stores), New Mexico (no sales until 12 p.m.), New York (no package liquor sales between 3 a.m. and 9 a.m., with many local variations) and West Virginia (no alcohol sales before 1 p.m.)

Interestingly, other states continue to limit other commercial activity, and a handful, including Colorado, Indiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois, have even prohibited car dealership sales on Sundays.

Finally, in line with the idea of giving labor a “day of rest,” while Massachusetts allows stores to be open on Sundays, many employees are required by law to be paid time and a half for working on that day.

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Bonus Fact:

  • Many states allow local communities to enact stricter liquor laws than those proscribed by the State, and in some cases to even prohibit the sale of alcohol entirely; these include Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Notably, Kansas and Tennessee are “dry by default,” and localities have to actively choose to allow liquor to be sold within their jurisdictional limits. On the other hand, some states prohibit local jurisdictions from enacting liquor laws (either to some extent or entirely), including Arizona, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah and Wyoming.
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  • Kris

    You seem to have fallen to a common misconception: Sunday is the Lord’s Day. Saturday is the Sabbath. The latter is rarely observed by modern Christians, with the exception of a few denominations like Seventh Day Adventists, but anyone with a formal Christian theological education is aware of the difference. Ask any clergy member and they’ll tell you.

    There’s a somewhat interesting history as to why Christians began to observe Sunday as the Lord’s Day instead of the Sabbath that the first Christians observed. (And, in full disclosure, there’s also some debate on what day the first Christians observed after Christ’s crucifixion, but as most of them were Jewish it’s certain that at least up until that point they observed the Sabbath.) My knowledge of it comes filtered through a denomination with less-than-flattering doctrine of the medieval church, so you may be better off doing your own research rather than just letting me fill you in.

  • crazyman

    As much as we look down on whacky Mslim Sharia law, Christians have a past that is not too different. As we continue to push toward a more sane future – we need to call out these legacy modes of thinking ( Muslim-Sharia, Christians-Blue? and Jewish-Talmudic ). While we would like to preserve culture and traditions, this is not an excuse to hide behind religious nuttiness.

    • Mike king

      Constantine decreed Sunday would be observed as the sabbath but they hide that kind of stuff in books

  • Anita Harris

    You can’t condem any religion or race as a Whole. There are good & not so good people in all religions & races. The problem occurs when the not so good people are treated diffrently because of their religion or race. If everyone was treated the same, based on a set of laws for all people, the world would be a better place for everyone.

  • mongera J.O

    We are living in a liberal world, why would the blue laws find space in our society where r.eligious liberty should be adhered and people given chance to worship in any day without being propelled by the state or the government. the state should govern the people and leave the choice of worship to its citizens to do appertaining to their religious beliefs as long as they don’t threaten other peoples liberty.

  • Bill Armitage

    I remember when they used to lock up the swing sets at the park on Sundays… you were supposed to be at church then at home on Sundays.