Blue Laws

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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A state or local law that prohibits commercial activities on Sunday.

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Blue laws have been part of U.S. LEGAL HISTORY since the colonial period. These laws, which today are usually referred to as Sunday closing laws, prohibit certain types of commercial activity on Sundays. Originally these laws were directed at personal activities regarded as moral offenses, such as gambling or the consumption of alcohol. In the nineteenth century, however, state and local governments passed laws that forbade businesses from operating on Sunday. Although these laws were clearly based on Christian beliefs, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that they do not violate the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. Many blue laws have been repealed since the 1960s, but some laws that ban the sale of alcohol on Sunday remain in force.

In 1781, the Reverend Samuel Peters published A General History of Connecticut, in which he used the term blue laws to refer to a set of laws that the Puritans had enacted in the 1600s to control morality. He claimed that the laws were printed on blue paper, hence the terminology. Historians, however, have concluded that this claim was false, as were many of the laws he purported to have discovered. Some have speculated that the use of the word blue came from a connotation that suggested a rigidly moral position, akin to the term bluenose that refers to a prudish, moralistic person.

The decline of Puritanism and religious-based governments in the 1700s signaled a decline in laws that banned personal activities on Sunday. Many states and towns, however, passed laws to forbid merchants and laborers from working on Sunday. These laws were not based on concerns that workers deserved a day of rest. Instead, they were meant to respect the Christian Sabbath. In the nineteenth century, the enactment of these laws proceeded west with the expansion of the United States. By the late 1850s, the courts had been called upon to analyze the effect of blue laws on liability issues. For example, in Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad Co. v. Philadelphia and Havre de Grace Steam Towboat Co., 64 U.S. (23 How.) 209 (1859), the U.S. Supreme Court held that a railroad that left debris in the water is not excused for damage to a commercial boat that sailed on Sunday. The Court reasoned that boats are works of necessity that are not bound by Sunday closing laws.

The rise of the TEMPERANCE MOVEMENT after the...

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