Blue law

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Blue laws, also known as Sunday laws, are laws designed to restrict or ban some or all Sunday activities for religious or secular reasons, particularly to promote the observance of a day of worship or rest. Blue laws may also restrict shopping or ban sale of certain items on specific days, most often on Sundays in the western world. Blue laws are enforced in parts of the United States and Canada as well as some European countries, particularly in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Norway, keeping most stores closed on Sundays.

Sabbath Eve, painting by Alexander Johnston

In the United States, the U.S. Supreme Court has on numerous occasions held blue laws as constitutional, citing secular bases such as securing a day of rest for mail carriers,[1] as well as protecting workers and families, in turn contributing to societal stability and guaranteeing the free exercise of religion.[2][3][4] The origin of the blue laws also partially stems from religion, particularly the prohibition of Sabbath desecration in Christian Churches following the first-day Sabbatarian tradition. Both labour unions and trade associations have historically supported the legislation of blue laws.[2] Most blue laws have been repealed in the United States, although some states ban the sale of alcoholic beverages on Sundays and many states ban selling cars on Sundays.


The very first known law regarding prohibition of Sunday labor for religious reasons was in 321 AD, by Emperor Constantine.[5]

On the venerable Day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed.

— Codex Justinianus, lib. 3, tit. 12, 3

The first occurrence of the phrase blue laws so far found is in the New-York Mercury of March 3, 1755, where the writer imagines a future newspaper praising the revival of "our Connecticut's old Blue Laws". In his 1781 book General History of Connecticut, the Reverend Samuel Peters (1735–1826) used it to describe various laws first enacted by Puritan colonies in the 17th century that prohibited various activities, recreational as well as commercial, on Sunday (Saturday evening through Sunday night). Sometimes the sale of certain types of merchandise was prohibited, and in some cases all retail and business activity.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence that blue laws were originally printed on blue paper. Rather, the word blue was used in the 17th century as a disparaging reference to rigid moral codes and those who observed them, particularly in blue-stocking, a reference to Oliver Cromwell's supporters in the parliament of 1653.[6] 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.[7] 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 false etymology, another version of which is that the laws were first bound in books with blue covers.

As Protestant moral reformers organized the Sabbath reform in 19th-century America, calls for the enactment and enforcement of stricter Sunday laws developed. Numerous Americans were arrested for working, keeping an open shop, drinking alcohol, traveling, and recreating on Sundays. Erwin Fahlbusch and Geoffrey William Bromiley write that throughout their existence, organizations advocating first-day Sabbatarianism, such as the Lord's Day Alliance in North America and the Lord's Day Observance Society in the British Isles, were supported by labor unions in lobbying "to prevent secular and commercial interests from hampering freedom of worship and from exploiting workers."[8] For example, the United States Congress was supported by the Lord's Day Alliance in securing "a day of rest for city postal clerks whose hours of labor, unlike those of city mail carriers, were largely unregulated."[1]

In Canada, the Ligue du Dimanche, a Roman Catholic Sunday league, supported the Lord's Day Act in 1923 and promoted first-day Sabbatarian legislation.[9][10] Beginning in the 1840s, workers, Jews, Seventh Day Baptists, freethinkers, and other groups began to organize opposition. Throughout the century, Sunday laws fueled church/state controversy and as an issue that drove the emergence of modern American minority-rights politics.[11] On the other hand, the more recent Dies Domini, written by Pope John Paul II in 1998, advocates Sunday legislation in that it protects civil servants and workers; the North Dakota Catholic Conference in 2011 likewise maintained that blue laws, in accordance with the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, "ensure that, for reasons of economic productivity, citizens are not denied time for rest and divine worship."[12] Similarly, Chief Justice Earl Warren, while acknowledging the partial religious origin of blue laws, acknowledged their "secular purpose they served by providing a benefit to workers at the same time that they enhanced labor productivity."[2]

Many European countries[which?] still place strong restrictions on store opening hours on Sundays, an example being Germany's Ladenschlussgesetz.


Sunday laws in Ontario, 1911

The Lord's Day Act, which since 1906 had prohibited business transactions from taking place on Sundays, was declared unconstitutional in the 1985 case R. v. Big M Drug Mart Ltd. Calgary police officers witnessed several transactions at the Big M Drug Mart, all of which occurred on a Sunday. Big M was charged with a violation of the Lord's Day Act. A provincial court ruled that the Lord's Day Act was unconstitutional, but the Crown proceeded to appeal all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. In a unanimous 6–0 decision, the Lord's Day Act was ruled an infringement of the freedom of conscience and religion defined in section 2(a) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.[13]

A Toronto referendum in 1950 allowed only team sports to be played professionally on Sunday. Theatre performances, movie screenings, and horse racing were not permitted until the 1960s.[14]

The Supreme 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. Nonetheless, as of today, virtually all provincial Sunday closing laws have ceased to exist. Some were struck down by provincial courts, but most were simply abrogated,[15] often due to competitive reasons where out-of-province or foreign merchants were open.

Cook Islands, Tonga and NiueEdit

In the Cook Islands, blue laws were the first written legislation, enacted by the London Missionary Society in 1827, with the consent of ariki (chiefs). In Tonga, the Vava'u Code (1839) was inspired by Methodist missionary teachings, and was a form of blue law. In Niue, certain activities remain forbidden on Sunday, reflecting the country's history of observing Christian Sabbath tradition.


In Denmark the closing laws restricting retail trade on Sundays have been abolished with effect from October 1, 2012. From then on retail trade is only restricted on public holidays (New Years Day, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Easter Monday, Day of Prayer, Ascension Day, Whit Sunday, Whit Monday, Christmas Day and Boxing Day) and on Constitution Day, Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve (on New Year's Eve from 3 pm only). On these days almost all shops will remain closed. Exempt are bakeries, DIYs, garden centres, gas stations and smaller supermarkets.[16]

England and WalesEdit

Before 1994Edit

Prior to 1994, trading laws forbade sale of certain products on a Sunday; the distinction between those that could and could not be sold was increasingly seen as arbitrary, and the laws were inadequately enforced and widely flouted. For example, some supermarkets would treat the relatively modest fines arising as a business cost and open nonetheless.[citation needed]

Since 1994Edit

The Sunday Trading Act 1994 relaxed restrictions on Sunday trading. This produced vocal opposition from bodies such as the Keep Sunday Special campaign, and the Lord's Day Observance Society: on religious grounds, on the grounds that it would increase consumerism, and that it would reduce shop assistants' weekend leisure time.

The legislation permits large shops (those with a relevant floor area in excess of 280 square metres) to open for up to six hours on Sunday between the hours of 10 am and 6 pm. Small shops, those with an area of below 280 square metres, are free to set their own Sunday trading times. Some large shops, such as off-licences, service stations and garages, are exempt from the restrictions.

Some very large shops (e.g. department stores) open for longer than six hours on a Sunday by allowing customers in to browse 30 minutes prior to allowing them to make a purchase, since the six-hour restriction only applies to time during which the shop may make sales.

Christmas Day and Easter Sunday are non-trading days. This applies even to garden centres, which earlier had been trading over Easter, but not to small shops (those with an area of below 280 square metres).[17]

Northern IrelandEdit

Prior to 2008, no football was permitted to be played on Sundays by clubs affiliated to the Irish Football Association in Northern Ireland.[18]

Shops with a floor area of over 280 square metres (3,000 sq ft) may only open from 1 to 6pm on Sundays.[19]

In Belfast, public playgrounds were closed on Sundays until 1965. Swings in public parks were tied up and padlocked to prevent their use.[20][21] Similar laws formerly applied to cinemas, pubs and parks.[22]


Since 2007, blue laws were enacted and resulted in stores closing on the 13 state holidays in Poland - these are both religious and secular days of rest. In 2014, an initiative by the Law and Justice party failed to pass the reading in the Sejm to ban trading on Sundays and state holidays. However, since 2018, the ruling government and the President of Poland has signed a law that restricts store trading from 1st March 2018 to the first and last Sunday of the month, Palm Sunday, the 3rd and 4th Advent Sundays, as well as trading until 14.00 for Easter Saturday and Christmas Eve. In 2019, the restriction was extended, and trading was permitted solely on the last Sunday of the month, as well as Palm Sunday, the 3rd and 4th Advent Sundays, as well as trading until 14.00 for Easter Saturday and Christmas Eve. From 2020, stores may only be open on 7 Sundays in the year: Palm Sunday, the 3rd and 4th Advent Sundays, the last Sunday of January, April, June and August as well as trading until 14.00 for Easter Saturday and Christmas Eve. [23] As a result of restrictions in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2nd Advent Sunday was later added as a shopping day. [24]

United StatesEdit

In the United States, judges have defended blue laws "in terms of their secular benefit to workers", holding that "the laws were essential to social well-being".[3] In 1896, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Johnson Field, opined with regard to Sunday blue laws:[3]

Its requirement is a cessation from labor. In its enactment, the legislature has given the sanction of law to a rule of conduct, which the entire civilized world recognizes as essential to the physical and moral well-being of society. Upon no subject is there such a concurrence of opinion, among philosophers, moralists and statesmen of all nations, as on the necessity of periodical cessation from labor. One day in seven is the rule, founded in experience and sustained by science. ... The prohibition of secular business on Sunday is advocated on the ground that by it the general welfare is advanced, labor protected, and the moral and physical well-being of society promoted.

— Hennington v. Georgia, 163 U.S. 299 (1896)[25]

Many states prohibit selling alcohol for on and off-premises sales in one form or another on Sundays at some restricted time, under the idea that people should be in church on Sunday morning, or at least not drinking.[26][27]

Another feature of blue laws in the United States restricts the purchase of particular items on Sundays. Some of these laws restrict the ability to buy cars, groceries, office supplies, and housewares among other things. Though most of these laws have been relaxed or repealed in most states, they are still enforced in some other states.

In Texas, for example, blue laws prohibited selling housewares such as pots, pans, and washing machines on Sunday until 1985. In Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma, New Jersey, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, car dealerships continue to operate under blue-law prohibitions in which an automobile may not be purchased or traded on a Sunday. Maryland permits Sunday automobile sales only in the counties of Charles, Prince George's, Montgomery, and Howard; similarly, Michigan restricts Sunday sales to only those counties with a population of less than 130,000. Texas and Utah prohibit car dealerships from operating over consecutive weekend days. In some cases these laws were created or retained with the support of those whom they affected, to allow them a day off each week without fear of their competitors still being open.[28]

Blue laws may also prohibit retail activity on days other than Sunday. In Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Maine,[29] for example, blue laws prohibit most retail stores, including grocery stores, from opening on Thanksgiving and Christmas.[30]

Research regarding the effect of the repeal of blue laws has been conducted, with Professor Elesha Coffman of Baylor University writing:[31]

Regarding culture, the impact of vanishing blue laws could be larger. A study in New Mexico in 2006 found a sharp increase in drunken driving on Sundays after that state dropped its Sunday ban on packaged alcohol sales. A broader study published by MIT and Notre Dame economists in 2008 found that the repeal of blue laws led to decreased church attendance, decreased donations to churches, and increased alcohol and drug use among religious individuals. These wide-ranging effects cannot easily be pinpointed to specific causes, but one of the latter study's authors, Daniel Hungerman, suggested to Christianity Today that blue laws might have been fulfilling their original intent, to keep people pious.[31]

Court casesEdit

Beginning in the mid-19th century, religious and ethno-cultural minorities arrested for violating state and local blue laws appealed their convictions to state supreme courts. In Specht v. Commonwealth (Pa. 1848), for example, German Seventh Day Baptists in Pennsylvania employed attorney Thaddeus Stevens to challenge the constitutionality of Pennsylvania's Sunday law.[32] As in cases in other states, litigants pointed to the provisions of state constitutions protecting religious liberty and maintained that Sunday laws were a blatant violation. Though typically unsuccessful (most state supreme courts upheld the constitutionality of Sunday laws), these constitutional challenges helped set a pattern by which subsequent moral minorities would seek to protect religious freedom and minority rights.[33]

The Supreme Court of the United States held in its landmark case, 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.[34] It approved the state's blue law restricting commercial activities on Sunday, noting that while such laws originated to encourage attendance at Christian churches, the contemporary Maryland laws were intended to serve "to provide a uniform day of rest for all citizens" on a secular basis and to promote the secular values of "health, safety, recreation, and general well-being" through a common day of rest. That this day coincides with Christian Sabbath is not a bar to the state's secular goals; it neither reduces its effectiveness for secular purposes nor prevents adherents of other religions from observing their own holy days.[35]

McGowan was but one of four Sunday closing cases decided together by the Court in May of 1961. In Gallagher v. Crown Kosher Super Market of Mass., Inc.,[36] the Court ruled against a Kosher deli that closed on Saturday but was open on Sunday. The other two cases were Braunfeld v. Brown, [37] and Two Guys from Harrison vs. McGinley.[38][39] Chief Justice Earl Warren declared that "the State seeks to set one day apart from all others as a day of rest, repose, recreation and tranquility--a day which all members of the family and community have the opportunity to spend and enjoy together, a day on which there exists relative quiet and disassociation from the everyday intensity of commercial activities, a day on which people may visit friends and relative who are not available during working days."[2]

In March 2006, Texas judges upheld the state blue law that requires car dealerships to close either Saturday or Sunday each weekend.[40]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Fuller, Wayne E. (October 1, 2010). Morality and the Mail in Nineteenth-Century America. University of Illinois Press. p. 93. ISBN 9780252091353.
  2. ^ a b c d Goldberg, Steven (2000). Seduced by Science: How American Religion Has Lost Its Way. NYU Press. p. 106. ISBN 9780814731055.
  3. ^ a b c Smith, Christian (2003). The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life. University of California Press. p. 319. ISBN 9780520230002.
  4. ^ O'Flaherty, Edward; Petersen, Rodney L.; Norton, Timothy A. (September 7, 2010). Sunday, Sabbath, and the Weekend: Managing Time in a Global Culture. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 167. ISBN 9780802865830.
  5. ^ "Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (New York: Scribner, 1928)".
  6. ^ Oxford English Dictionary.
  7. ^ American "blue laws" were so named because they were originally printed on blue paper.. Retrieved July 12, 2006.
  8. ^ Fahlbusch, Erwin; Bromiley, Geoffrey William (2005). The Encyclopedia of Christianity. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 787. ISBN 9780802824165.
  9. ^ Roy, Christian (2005). Traditional Festivals: A Multicultural Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 457. ISBN 9781576070895. However, an amendment was made that left is enforcement to the discretion of the provinces, so that it remained a dead letter in mostly French Quebec. A Catholic Sunday League was formed in 1923 to combat this laxity and promote sabbatarian restrictions in that province--especially against movie theaters.
  10. ^ Rybczyński, Witold (1991). Waiting for the Weekend. Viking Penguin. p. 78. ISBN 9780670830015. In 1922, inspired by a pastoral letter decrying the lax observance of Sunday as a day of rest, the Ligue du Dimanche (Sunday League) was formed. For fourteen years the League agitated for Sabbatarian legislation, particularly against cinemas ...
  11. ^ Kyle G. Volk (2014), Moral Minorities and the Making of American Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 019937192X.
  12. ^ "North Dakota Catholic Conference says 'Sunday law' Benefits All People". EWTN News. September 19, 2011. Retrieved July 5, 2017.
  13. ^ "CanLII – 1985 CanLII 69 (S.C.C.)". Canadian Legal Information Institute ( September 3, 2009. Archived from the original on May 9, 2011. Retrieved September 24, 2009.
  14. ^ "Allan Levine: Never mind Ford Nation. Hogtown has a long history of drunks, tyrants and loudmouths running City Hall". Retrieved February 2, 2017.
  15. ^ Raynault-Ollu, Louis-Philippe (2012). "Sunday Observance Laws in North America". doi:10.2139/ssrn.2260582. ISSN 1556-5068. SSRN 2260582. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  16. ^ "Lov om ændring af lov om detailsalg fra butikker m.v. - Liberalisering af reglerne om åbningstid" [Act Amending the Law on Retail Sales from Shops, etc. - Liberalization of the Rules on Opening Hours]. Act No. 543 of 26 May 2010 (in Danish). Danish Civil Protection Agency - Retrieved September 23, 2018.
  17. ^ "Trading hours for retailers: the law". Retrieved January 27, 2016.
  18. ^ Henry McDonald. "New bid for Sunday football". the Guardian. Retrieved January 27, 2016.
  19. ^ "Seasonal and Sunday Trading". Retrieved March 10, 2016.
  20. ^ "Belfast Children Allowed To Use Swings On Sunday". RTÉ Archives. Archived from the original on August 15, 2015.
  21. ^ Ross, Nick (March 25, 1999). "The banned played on". The Guardian.
  22. ^ "Never on a Sunday? Not any more". BBC News. May 27, 2009.
  23. ^ "Poland limits Sunday shopping to benefit family life". Business Insider. Retrieved January 30, 2018.
  24. ^ "Poland's Sunday trading ban lifted ahead of Christmas due to pandemic". Notes from Poland. Retrieved January 2, 2021.
  25. ^ Hennington v. Georgia, 163 U.S. 299 (1896).
  26. ^ Ph.D., Prof. David J. Hanson. "Alcohol Blue Laws (Laws Prohibiting Sunday Sales of Alcoholic Beverages)". Retrieved September 28, 2016.
  27. ^ Montgomery, Bob. "Gaffney churches seek to stop Sunday alcohol sales". Retrieved September 28, 2016.
  28. ^ Good Question: Why Can't We Buy Alcohol On Sunday?, WCCO-TV, November 20, 2006 Archived September 29, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  29. ^ "Title 17, §3204: Business, traveling or recreation on Sunday". Retrieved January 27, 2016.
  30. ^ "A turkey of a blue law", Boston Globe. Retrieved November 25, 2006.
  31. ^ a b Coffman, Elesha (2009). "Bye-Bye, Blue Laws?". Christianity Today. Retrieved July 6, 2017.
  32. ^ Specht v. Commonwealth, 8 Pa. 312 (Penn. 1848)..
  33. ^ Kyle G. Volk, Moral Minorities and the Making of American Democracy (Oxford, 2014), 59-68, 190-201.
  34. ^ McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U.S. 420 (1961).
  35. ^ McGowan, 366 U.S. 420, 445 (1961) "The present purpose and effect of most of our Sunday Closing Laws is to provide a uniform day of rest for all citizens; and the fact that this day is Sunday, a day of particular significance for the dominant Christian sects, does not bar the State from achieving its secular goals."
  36. ^ Gallagher v. Crown Kosher Super Market of Mass., Inc., 366 U.S. 617 (1961).
  37. ^ Braunfeld v. Brown, 366 U.S. 599 (1961).
  38. ^ Two Guys from Harrison vs. McGinley, 366 U.S. 582 (1961).
  39. ^ The LANDMARK Cases, National Sunday Law Crisis. Retrieved May 21, 2008.
  40. ^ "'Blue Law' for car sales upheld by Judge" Archived May 31, 2008, at the Wayback Machine, KVIA, March 22, 2006. Retrieved May 28, 2008. "A Texas judge has upheld an old law that requires car dealerships in the Lone Star state to close one day each weekend. They must now choose to open either Saturday or Sunday."


  • Algeo, Matthew (2006). Last Team Standing. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0-306-81472-3
  • Ruck, Rob; with Patterson, Maggie Jones and Weber, Michael P. (2010). Rooney: A Sporting Life. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 978-0-8032-2283-0
  • Volk, Kyle G. (2014). Moral Minorities and the Making of American Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 019937192X.
  • Westcott, Rich (2001). A Century of Philadelphia Sports. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN 978-1-56639-861-9

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