State/Church FAQ

Blue Laws/Sunday Closing Laws

My state/town has a law restricting the sale of certain items on Sundays. Is this legal?

Many states and local governments have established a variety of laws restricting the sale of certain goods on Sundays. An example of a law of this kind, which collectively have become known as “blue laws,” would be a law declaring that it shall be illegal to sell alcohol on Sundays. These laws may also include mandatory store closings on Sunday.

Because Sunday is “the Christian day of rest,” many people who are inconvenienced by Sunday closing laws will intuitively feel that these laws violate the separation of church and state, a cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution. Indeed, many of these blue laws were originally drafted explicitly to accommodate Sunday worship services and a Christian sense of morality. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has ruled that even though blue laws originally had a religious purpose, they now exist to promote the secular purpose of securing a common day of rest. Thus, they are permissible regulations for a secular government to make and are safe from legal challenges on Establishment Clause grounds. See McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U.S. 420, 422-23 (1961) (upholding as constitutional charges brought against employees of a large department store for violating Maryland’s criminal statutes prohibiting “all labor, business and other commercial activities on Sunday,” except the sale of “all foodstuffs, automobile and boating accessories, flowers, toilet goods, hospital supplies and souvenirs.”).

The Supreme Court held in McGowan that “as presently written and administered, most [Sunday closing laws], at least, are of a secular rather than of a religious character, and [] presently they bear no relationship to establishment of religion as those words are used in the Constitution.” Since the McGowan decision, many state blue laws have nevertheless been struck down on other grounds. Blue laws have been struck down in: Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. See Caldor's, Inc. v. Bedding Barn, Inc., 417 A.2d 343, 346 (Conn. 1979) (holding that Connecticut Sunday Closing laws were too arbitrary, discriminatory, and unreasonable to meet constitutional equal protection and due process requirements). This contrasts with decisions affecting Arkansas, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Dakota, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont, and Virginia, where Sunday closing laws have survived legal challenges. Id. Since Caldor's, Inc. was decided in 1979, some additional state decisions have upheld certain blue laws. See, e.g., Pruey v. Dept. of Alcoholic Beverage Control, 715 P.2d 458 (N.M. 1986); Best Products Co. v. Spaeth, 461 N.W.2d 91 (N.D. 1990); Opty's Amoco, Inc. v. Village of South Holland, 595 N.E.2d 1060 (Ill. 1992); Lakeside Imports, Inc. v. State, 639 So.2d 253 (La. 1994); Martin v. Beer Bd., 908 S.W.2d 941 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1995); State v. Heretic, Inc., 588 S.E.2d 224 (Ga. 2003). Other state cases have dismissed charges for violating blue laws on various grounds. See, e.g., Handy Dan Improvement Center, Inc. v. Adams, 633 S.W.2d 699 (Ark. 1982); Commonwealth v. Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., 536 N.E.2d 318 (Mass. 1989). Thus, while the Supreme Court has held that Sunday closing laws do not violate the separation of church and state, many have been found to violate other provisions of the Constitution when actually enforced.

While there remains a significant state split on whether to enforce blue laws or treat them as “dead letter law,” in most jurisdictions these laws continue to grow less popular, suggesting a slow but steady trend toward the elimination of Sunday closing laws. If you have a complaint concerning a blue law in a state not present on the list above, or from one of the states where a blue law has been struck down, you may report a church/state violation to us, or send us an e-mail, letter, or fax describing the situation.

My state/town has a law regulating the placement of certain businesses within a certain distance from a church. Is this legal?

Laws which prohibit the operation of certain businesses near churches may appear to unconstitutionally advance religion, but just like more common Sunday closing laws, these laws may reasonably be interpreted as advancing a secular purpose. Often restrictions on locating a business near a church are coupled with restrictions on locating near schools, playgrounds, or other locations that are frequented by children. Thus, a court may reasonably conclude that the law has the secular purpose of protecting children from exposure to certain businesses. As with any other blue law, a court will overturn this type of law only when no rational secular purpose can be found. See, e.g. State v. Smith, 265 N.C. 173 (1965) (holding statute which made it illegal to operate a club on Sundays within 300 yards of a public school or church invalid; the court reasoned: schools are not in session on Sundays, and churches are not open until 7 a.m. at the earliest, so there was no rational reason for prohibiting the opening of clubs on Sunday prior to 7 a.m. and no rationale for the 300 yard restriction). 

Researched and written by Sam Grover, FFRF legal intern
Posted December 2010

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