Home » News » Sunday Laws » Why we need "blue laws," the religious tradition that sanctifies life outside of work
|Why we need "blue laws," the religious tradition that sanctifies life outside of work [message #2757]
||Sat, 20 April 2019 18:00
Registered: July 2017
"During a recent cross-country road trip this summer, my wife and I were driving around Little Rock, Arkansas, looking for a place to eat lunch. We had a hard time finding any place that was open. Then we realized it was Sunday.
It's not too surprising that in conservative-leaning Arkansas, certain blue laws -- or laws that restrict commerce on Sundays for religious reasons -- remain in force in many parts of the state. Arkansas banned most businesses from opening on Sunday until 1982. Until 2009, it banned all Sunday liquor sales, which, in practice, shut down many establishments that served alcohol. Not until July of this year did the town of Fort Smith repeal a law banning dancing on Sundays. Many towns in Arkansas, including more left-leaning college towns, still maintain a wide array of local blue laws, especially regarding liquor.
While I'm not aware of a specific law that led to my difficulty finding a place to eat in Little Rock, the cultural tradition of blue laws was strong enough that restaurants offering Sunday brunch appeared far less common than in more secularized places where I've lived.
And in an era with increasingly fewer protections for workers, progressives and religious conservatives alike should unite to push for more blue laws that protect the sanctity of life outside of of work.
American life is increasingly market-driven. Religious bodies have traditionally provided an antidote.
Over the past 50 years, many institutions that once protected American workers and families from the ravages of unbridled capitalistic excess have been eroded. The most prominent such institution that may come to mind is the labor union: Once powerful bodies that pushed for shorter working days, longer weekends, better pay, and safer working conditions, today, labor unions represent just 10 percent of American workers.
But unions are not the only social institution that once sought to carve out time for Americans away from work. Religious bodies have, since time immemorial, claimed certain days and times for themselves, set apart for worship, prayer, or rest. The Jewish Sabbath is perhaps the most notable example of this practice, but virtually all religions have some sense of times that are set apart, during which many forms of labor or commerce are taboo. These restrictions are known as "blue laws," and in today's climate of economic anxiety, religious conservatives and economic progressives should make common cause to restore them.
While these practices have their origins in various kinds of religious convictions, they are ultimately part of what economic historians would call a "moral economy," or an economic system where the moral or ethical norms of a society are sufficiently strong that, with or without the intervention of the state, certain values are prioritized above the market itself.
Industrialization mostly destroyed this system, but some pieces of it, like abstention from work during churchgoing hours in Christian societies, either remained normative or were enshrined in law. In the United States, "blue laws," so called due to the blue paper on which Puritan leaders printed the Sunday trade restrictions, date back to the 18th century at least. Many forms of commerce were regulated or restricted so that workers should spend time in church or with their families.
Blue laws continue to dwindle across the United States
Today, blue laws are increasingly rare. The last statewide full-day restriction on commerce in North Dakota, was repealed in 1991. The only place in America where general retail remains totally prohibited on Sundays is Bergen County, New Jersey, where the law remains popular: A 2013 push for repeal couldn't even get enough signatures to get on the ballot. I am unaware of polling on this issue to determine what the partisan mix of support for county blue laws may be, but Bergen County's presidential election vote share was about the same as the state of New Jersey on the whole, meaning it went for Hillary Clinton.
Many states and counties around the United States have a wide range of partial restrictions on certain hours or businesses for religious reasons. North Dakota prohibits retail before noon on Sundays, although voters may get a chance to repeal the statewide restriction in a ballot measure in November. A huge number of states and counties restrict the sale of alcohol or cars on Sundays, and many places also, somewhat bizarrely, restrict hunting on Sundays.
But while the very secularly minded may celebrate the end of blue laws, seeing them as a violation of church-state separation, the result of blue law repeals may be distinctly non-progressive. To begin with, the Supreme Court has repeatedly, and fairly recently, ruled that blue laws are constitutional: The state can prohibit commercial activities on certain days, even if the days are selected for apparently religious reasons. The reasoning is that the state may have an interest in people spending social time away from work or commerce in a coordinated way, and it is reasonable for the state to accommodate existing social forms, such as religion.
While this may seem like a back door to the establishment of religion, it's actually a distinctively progressive view of how the law functions. Implicitly, by approving blue laws, the Supreme Court is admitting the view that the state may implement very specific, apparently arbitrary rules to achieve non-economic, general well-being-related goals like "leisure time for workers."
In other words, blue laws are also a way that the state enshrines a special time for citizens to exercise rights to assembly, religious and secular. Assembly requires that people have time off together, so it doesn't work to simply mandate that businesses close for any random 24-hour period, because that doesn't ensure that people have time off together. The state cannot force you to go to church or a community meeting or spend time with loved ones, but it can force your employer to close up shop, raising the odds that you'll invest in social and civic capital instead of paid labor.
This compelling interest in togetherness is vital, as it suggests the state may have a valid legal interest in supporting the formation of strong communities and social bonds outside of taxpaying employment.
Progressives have much to celebrate about blue laws
Conservatives and progressives have already found common ground on this issue: Labor unions have historically supported blue laws. Aside from boosting religious participation and strengthening civic behaviors like voting, blue laws also serve to protect huge swaths of working-class service-sector employees (who, in today's world, often do not have access to union representation) from arbitrary scheduling and seven-day workweeks.
In the absence of robust unions, blue laws are a vital second-best policy for progressives, and probably a more achievable policy given the political success of state right-to-work laws in recent years. Without blue laws, the five-day workweek -- and generations of labor activism -- is in serious jeopardy.
Even beyond the service sector, more and more white-collar workers are having their time invaded by emails, Slack messages, and other work responsibilities. A generalized law restricting the ability of nonessential businesses from functioning one day a week would go a long way to protect workers from the creeping commodification of every second of their time. Put bluntly, it would make sense to legally interdict the ability of your boss to expect you to respond to an email on Sunday morning.
Blue laws are sometimes opposed on efficiency grounds: The service sector, we are assured, must be open on weekends, so that other workers can obtain those services. It's true that essential services probably must remain open regardless of the day. But brunch is not as essential as the emergency room. Nobody dies if they can't buy a flat-screen TV on Sunday.
More to the point, this logic implies that service-sector workers should be a permanent second class of workers: rather than simply providing services, service workers are defined as existing to serve higher-status workers. Economists call the work "service sector" because it doesn't produce a physical commodity; but increasingly, "service sector" seems to be used to denote social class.
Around the world, blue laws are widely practiced: Most of France until recently was covered by restrictive Sunday laws, but President Emmanuel Macron's neoliberal government has opened up Sunday shopping. Much of Germany is covered by blue laws, most notably in religious Bavaria. Poland recently implemented blue laws to give service workers time off and families time together.
The social choice to protect a single day of the week for society to collectively step back from work and commerce and spend some time together should be endorsed across the political spectrum (except, perhaps, among totalitarians and libertarians; the former due to a distaste for robust private assembly, the latter due to an overzealous desire for the universal commercialization of humanity).
And yet blue laws continue to fall by the wayside. They are inconvenient for a busy society. But their inconvenience is precisely why they must be defended, and defended as a matter of legal requirement. People need to have their rest defended from the constant encroachment of busyness, particularly at the hands of business.
Lyman Stone, a Vox columnist, is a regional population economics researcher who blogs at In a State of Migration. He is also an agricultural economist at USDA. Find him on Twitter @lymanstoneky."
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