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Blue Laws & Sabbatarianism - American Blue Laws Past & Present


Should the government try to keep certain businesses and activities "off limits" on the sabbath of any particular religion? Is there a "secular purpose" to mandating one particular day off which just "happens" to be the sabbath of the country's dominant religion?

What Is the Sabbath?

The term sabbath comes from the Hebrew root abat, which means "to cease, rest." The sabbath is the seventh day of the week, the day on which Jews, Christians and Muslims believe God rested after having created everything. One this day, believers traditionally meet for services to worship their God and, often, rest themselves. For Jews, the sabbath is on Saturday (Shabbat). For most Christians, it falls on Sunday (a few Christian denominations follow the Jewish tradition).

What Is Sabbatarianism?

Sabbatarianism is a social trend which focuses upon a very strict observance of the Sabbath. Traditionally, this observance is supported and enforced through the use of laws which prohibit a wide variety of activities on the Sabbath. The idea that the government should enforce such public piety goes back to the Puritans, who did not believe that church and state should be separate. In more recent times, such sabbath laws have been upheld in courts because they are "traditional."

Origins & History of American Blue Laws

Blue laws, or sabbath laws, are attempts by some Christians to enforce a traditional Christian sabbath as a legally mandated day of rest for everyone. Courts have permitted this, but it violates church-state separation for laws to give Sundays to those churches which treat it as special — priests have no business calling upon our government to give them and their religious sects privileged status. Sundays, like every other day of the week, belong to everybody — not just to Christian churches.

Resurrection of Blue Laws in America Today

Legal enforcement of a "day of rest" was dormant until recent years, but cat-calls from the choir have been increasing. There is a subtext of anti-civil liberty ideology in defenses of blue laws. Efforts to recreate blue laws do not occur in a political or theological vacuum — they are part of a larger agenda to limit what people can do in the name of others' religious purity. If the state can forbid Sunday shopping because majority Christian sects prohibit it, what else will they prohibit?

McGowan v. Maryland (1961)

This case involved the question of what sort of business — if any business at all — could be conducted on Sundays. At the time, Maryland's laws were typical of those found around the country and were not particularly onerous. Generally speaking, businesses were to be closed on Sundays. The Court ruled that Maryland's Sunday closing laws had evolved into furthering secular ends and therefore did not violate the Establishment Clause.

Braunfeld v. Brown (1961)

Jacob Braunfeld was an Orthodox Jew who owned a retail clothing store in Philadelphia. His store was closed on Saturdays because that was his Sabbath, but Pennsylvania's blue law required that his store also be closed on Sundays because that was the traditional Christian Sabbath. By a 6-3 vote, with Chief Justice Warren writing the majority opinion, the Supreme Court declared the blue laws constitutional.

Arlan's Department Store v. Kentucky (1962)

The owners of three retail stores in Kentucky were fined for employing persons on Sunday in violation of a Kentucky statute, and the convictions were sustained in lower courts against their claim that the statute violated the First Amendment, applicable to the States by reason of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court dismissed the case and dismissed the appeal, claiming that there were no substantial federal questions at issue.

Estate of Thornton v. Caldor (1985)

Connecticut had amended its Sunday closing laws to say that no employee could be required to work on his or her chosen day of worship. The law appears to have been crafted as a good-faith attempt to promote the free exercise of religion and avoid the kind of religious discrimination that had been upheld in the McGowan and Braunfeld cases twenty-four years earlier. The Court ruled 8-1 that Connecticut's law requiring that employers give all employees the day off if it was their chosen day of worship was unconstitutional because it had a direct effect of advancing a particular religious practice.

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