Gray Skies, Blue Laws, $800 Shoes

By José I. Ortiz

As a poor law student, I don’t get very many opportunities to shop. When I do, the fact that I live in New Jersey makes shopping a little more complicated because one of my favorite malls — located in Paramus — is closed all day on Sundays. As a Saturday Sabbath-keeping Christian, this makes finding the time to shop particularly challenging for me, but it probably affects everyone in the area. Most people work Monday through Friday, so Sunday would appear to be a prime shopping day.

Bergen County lawmakers don’t seem to care.

As we all know, “Superstorm Sandy” caused devastating damage across the Northeastern United States. As the New York Times reported in one article, Bergen County’s executive, Kathleen A. Donovan, thought a good way to help New Jerseyans recover was to lift the county’s laws banning the operation of certain businesses on Sunday known as “blue laws.” Though the reprieve would only be temporary, it still rankled Paramus’ Mayor Richard LaBarbiera who wanted to make sure shoppers’ sprees would be limited to “necessities” and not “$800 shoes”.

I live near Hoboken, an area that Sandy was particularly unkind to. After I read about the Mayor’s reaction to temporarily allowing shopping on Sundays (and after my fall semester finals), I decided to look into the legality of the mandated Sunday closings in honor of the Sabbath. Why are these laws constitutional in a country where separation of church and state is recognized as a basic democratic principle? LASIS investigates.

Fun fact: no one knows why these laws are called “blue laws.” Theories range from the blue paper the original Puritan laws were printed on to the blue color of the stockings worn by England’s prudish political parties. At any rate, Bergen County’s blue law (formally known as the “Sunday Closing Law”) was initially passed in the 1950’s but has since survived various attempts via referendum to repeal it – becoming New Jersey’s only county to retain its blue law.

There is no shortage of jokes or blatant insults with New Jersey as the punchline. The seemingly random list of dos and don’ts in this blue law statute only contributes to the fun. Specifically, the Sunday Closing Law prohibits the sale of clothing, building supplies, furniture and the operation of flea markets but not garage sales – those are OK. After mass (or service – for you Protestants) on Sunday morning, you are also legally allowed to buy or sell aircraft equipment, art, coal, gasoline, railroad equipment, rope, school supplies, tobacco, VCR tapes, and wallpaper. I’m sure there is a producer out there creative enough to start a (yet another) New Jersey based reality show based on this law.

If you’re a shop owner in Bergen County and are thinking about selling furniture on a Sunday – beware! The statute has enforcement mechanisms in place that range from fines of $250 – $5,000 and up to six months in jail.

Some folks in blue statute areas have tried to fight the system.  A group of department store employees in Maryland thought their state’s blue laws were unfair  — particularly after receiving a hefty fine for conducting business on a Sunday. They took their plight all the way up to the Supreme Court in the 1961 decision that would settle the blue law issue once and for all: McGowan v. Maryland. The Court held that contrary to the appellants’ arguments, Maryland’s blue law did not violate the Equal Protection Clause or the Establishment Clause. It did not unfairly burden any particular sector of the public nor did it seek to enforce the practices of one particular religion on the people of Maryland.

The Court issued a number of other rulings on the same issue later that same day in 1961, using their decision in McGowan as precedent. One holding in particular further discussed the constitutional issues and gives us more insight into the Court’s reasoning. An Orthodox Jewish community in Massachusetts argued that it was unfairly burdened by its state’s blue law because its members were unable to operate their kosher market on Sundays (and were prohibited by their religion from doing so on Saturdays). The Court reasoned that even though the community was unable to conduct business on their Sabbath (from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday) the blue law was not considered more burdensome to them than to their Christian neighbors, because the law’s objectives were not religious but civic.

The state successfully argued, and the Court accepted, that its law simply intended to encourage people to rest one day a week for reasons of general health, recreation and well-being and that the choice of Sunday was more traditional than religious.

The Court seemed oblivious to the religious history of blue laws, not just in the United States but also around the Western World. It seems that the few blue laws still on the books will stick until the court of public opinion decides otherwise.

And we’re not there yet. People in Bergen County support this law enough to keep it on the books and defended its existence to the New York Times reporter. And while Mayor LaBarbiera is correct that purchasing $800 shoes is not a necessity on a Sunday, I don’t see why that’s his, or anyone’s call to make.

This law student thinks he should be free to buy highlighters in Paramus on a Sunday afternoon, but will just have to settle for VCR tapes of old Springsteen concerts instead.



3 Responses

  1. Yara says:

    Nicely written thought piece about the issue. We all accept the blue laws (I’m from Jersey) but why do we? They are clearly for religious reasons. All of Western Europe have the laws, but at least they all admit that the reasons are religious. But we have a separation of church and state, like you say. And nobody seems to care that our state violates that, every single Sunday.

  2. Cathy says:

    I amnot a religious person and I fully support Blue Laws. They give people a day to sit back and relax, strengthen familty ties and re-energize for the work week. Unfortunately, every law cannot be a perfect fit for every person. It’s quite possible (I haven’t checked) that Blue Laws were established for Religious reasons, but it is archaic to think that that is still the reason to have them. Just like seat belt laws had to be put in place to force people to keep themselves safe, Blue Laws would force people to re-prioritize, and for the better.
    I know this doesn’t work for you, but sometimes things have to be done to serve the majority.
    I live on Long Island, which was also hit hard by Sandy. I also work fulltime. I shop after work or on Saturdays. Yes, I will admit, that I sometimes find myself running to the store on a Sunday, but because it is open. If it was closed, I would do without and plan better for the next week. I wish we had Blue Laws here…

  3. DRF says:

    Blue laws are one of the things that absolutely boggles my mind. I’m a European (some would say Eastern European even though we contend Czech republic is in central Europe) and as such quite used to rather heavy handed government interference from gun registration and permit laws all the way to children’s names being subject to approval in some cases (most of your celebrities would have issues naming any of their children), yet the idea of the government regulating when I can or can not do business seems patently absurd to me.

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