The term “blue law“ commonly refers to the prohibition of alcohol sales on Sunday, but it historically defined a body of regulations designed to preserve the Sabbath by proscribing most labor on that day.
Some such restrictions date to as early as the 13th century in England.
Colonial settlements enacted similar laws with the explicitly religious intent to prevent unseemly activities on the Sabbath. Early New England blue laws were extensive, including bans on everything from wearing lacy shirtsleeves to using birth control to hunting.
After independence, many former colonies retained these laws, and new states adopted them as they joined the union.
Many early blue laws disappeared
The origin of the term blue law is unclear. By some accounts, it referred to the blue wrapping that accompanied printed documents of the late 18th century. More colorful versions propose that the term was a mocking reference to the effort to prevent “blue,” or indecent, behavior, such as adultery, fornication, blasphemy and drinking.
Most blue law provisions relating to everyday activities, such as housework and travel, had disappeared by the end of the colonial period, but restrictions designed to limit alcohol consumption and to preserve Sunday as a day of rest remained.
They were revitalized during the temperance movement of the 19th century. Many states retained the restrictions and the language, although seemingly archaic, describing the religious intent behind them well after the repeal of Prohibition.
Sunday blue laws raise First Amendment concerns because they favor Christianity
As such, the laws raised constitutional concerns under the First Amendment. The establishment clause of the First Amendment specifically prohibits any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” By designating Sunday as a Sabbath and by restricting the activities of individuals on that day, states with Sunday blue laws were arguably favoring Christianity over religions that celebrate different Sabbaths.
Litigation over Sunday laws was common throughout the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.
The Supreme Court finally ruled on the matter in 1961 in McGowan v. Maryland, a case filed by employees of a large department store who were fined for selling merchandise, including floor wax and toys, on Sunday in violation of state law.
They argued that the statute was intended to encourage church attendance and to induce those with dissenting religious beliefs to join predominant religious groups in their Sabbath.
Supreme Court ruled blue laws were constitutional, left regulations to states
The court, while acknowledging the religious origins of the Sunday blue laws, held that they were constitutional. Much of the religious language had been removed from the statute — excluding a single remaining reference to the “Lord’s day” — and many of the restrictions had been lifted.
The court’s opinion by Chief Justice Earl Warren held that the laws were permissible regulations under the state’s police powers to regulate in the interest of public health, safety, welfare, and morals and that the regulations sought to provide a day for leisure and family, not to impose a particular set of religious practices.
The effect of the court’s decision in McGowan was to leave regulation of Sunday activities to the states, resulting in a patchwork of rules that vary by county or municipality.
Many states still prohibit Sunday alcohol sales
Most remaining blue laws regulate alcohol sales, but the number of states with such laws is declining. In 2022, 28 states had some kind of alcohol sales restrictions on Sunday. In Braunfeld v. Brown (1961), the Court ruled that states could apply blue laws to those, in this case orthodox Jews, who also closed their businesses on Saturdays for religious reasons.
In many states, the authority to enact a blue law is left to local city and county governments.
In the 21st century, states have begun to ease restrictions and in some cases repeal Sunday blue laws altogether. Although secularization has played a role in that process, the primary motivation has been economic. With increased competition and people on the move around the clock, many businesses cannot afford to lose a full day’s revenues by remaining closed on Sunday.
Requiring employees to work Sundays has created constitutional problems
Such pressures have created new constitutional problems under the free exercise clause, as businesses require employees to work Sunday schedules. Oftentimes the cases are brought under the general federal anti-discrimination statute, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires employers to make reasonable accommodations when an employee’s bona fide religious practices conflict with a neutrally applied job requirement. Employers do not have to provide such accommodations if it imposes an undue hardship on their business.
While the trend is to eliminate blues laws, some states still have such “Sunday” laws on the books. For example, Connecticut law prohibits hunting on Sundays except for “hunting deer with bow and arrow on private property” Conn. Gen. Stat. § 26-73 (2017). North Carolina prohibits hunting on Sundays within 500 feet of a place of worship or in any county with a population of greater than 700,000. N.C. Gen. Stat. §103 – 2.
This article first was published in 2009 and has been updated. The primary contributor was Sara L. Zeigler, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University. It has been updated by other First Amendment Encyclopedia contributors.