Blue Sunday

Why should the government tell me when I ought to buy booze?  Why should the government dictate when businesses are permitted to sell booze?

Alcohol is a legal commodity.  Why should the government be involved at all?

I’m not talking about age limits, which are probably necessary and which the state can be said to have a “compelling interest” in enforcing (to use the legal jargon).

No, I speak of the tradition whereby a state or local government can restrict the hours during which local businesses—namely, liquor stores—can sell alcoholic beverages to their customers, necessarily abridging people’s purchasing power and, to a degree, cutting into those businesses’ profits.

Specifically, I refer to the famous “blue laws” in the commonwealth of Massachusetts, which most concern me because, well, that’s where I live.

Until this past week, no Massachusetts package store (“packies,” we call them) could sell alcohol before noon on Sunday.  This regulation was established in 2003, amending a previous bylaw that prohibited Sunday alcohol sales outright.

On Tuesday, however, both houses of the state legislature approved a further loosening of this statute, moving up the opening liquor bell on Sunday from noon to 10 a.m., the hour at which bars and restaurants are already able to serve alcoholic beverages to their guests (mostly in the form of Mimosas and Bloody Marys, one assumes).  Whether or not Governor Deval Patrick ultimately signs this bill, state law will continue to stipulate that off-premises liquor sales not occur between 11 p.m. and 8 a.m. on the six remaining days of the week.

By no means is Massachusetts the only corner of America where alcohol cannot be bought and sold at all hours of the day and night.  Nearly all 50 states have such restrictions of one kind or another, be they statewide or on a town-by-town basis.  (A notable exception is Nevada, where it’s very nearly illegal to be sober.)

But the Sunday issue is a singular phenomenon, slightly separate from (and more interesting than) all other liquor laws in these United States, and also more specifically tied to the history and sensibilities of old-fashioned New England.

While no one can quite agree on the origin or exact meaning of the term “blue laws,” the concept arose for unambiguously religious reasons.  Blue laws were, in the first instance, a means of enforcing the Fourth Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”

Accordingly, the term encompasses proscriptions on all manner of formal activity performed on Sunday, when everyone is supposed to be at church.  These include prohibitions on selling cars, opening grocery and department stores, hunting game and, for a short time in one part of New Jersey, “singing vain songs or tunes.”

While a great many of these ordinances have since been relaxed or abolished, some are still on the books, particularly regarding booze.

Crucially, the rationale for them has evolved from its Biblical roots, since any attempt to regulate business practices based on a few lines from Exodus would be seen today as flatly unconstitutional.

Instead, we have the Supreme Court asserting, in the 1961 case McGowan v. Maryland, “The present purpose and effect of most of our Sunday Closing Laws is to provide a uniform day of rest for all citizens […] [T]he 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.”

In other words, the government is within its rights to mandate that certain businesses take a day off, on the grounds that it is in the best interests of everyone—believers and nonbelievers alike—for them to do so.

And so the question becomes:  Is this rationale good enough to merit the forced halting of free enterprise during certain designated hours?  What “secular goals” are we talking about, anyway?

Is it to protect the lowly employees of these establishments from being overworked?  Tell that to the minimum-wage laborers at 24-hour Walmarts and IHOPs, which somehow manage to evade such regulation of their business hours.

Is it to stop people from drinking too much, with the added assumption (to borrow an adage from How I Met Your Mother) that no good purchasing decisions are ever made after 2 o’clock in the morning?  The argument seems reasonable and desirable on its face, until you begin to apply the lessons of Prohibition, which include the fact that the most surefire way of getting people to drink is by making it difficult for them to do so.  That alcohol today is so very available, indeed, only reinforces the peculiarity in thinking its effects can be reined in by locking the cash register for a few hours every week.

Which returns us, in a way, to my original question:  What’s the point?

So long as booze remains a legal product, and so long as individuals continue to enjoy it, you cannot physically prevent them from doing so, and you probably shouldn’t try.

Those who want to take a “day of rest”—at church, at home or anywhere else—are free to do so.  No one is stopping them.

As for people who would love to take Sunday off but can’t because they have to work:  I’m afraid the shuttering of package stores will not be of much help in this regard (except, of course, for those who work in one).

Meanwhile, come September there will be a significant chunk of the American public for whom the prospect of Sunday-as-Sabbath means precisely one thing:  NFL football.  And you know what really complements a nice, relaxing day of game-watching—say, something cold and refreshing that you could pick up on the drive over to your friend’s place?

Here in Massachusetts, let’s say it’s probably a member of the Adams family.  And I don’t mean the presidents.

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