The “blue laws” and the religious tradition which sanctifies life outside of work

On a recent trip across the country this summer, my wife and I were driving through Little Rock, Arkansas, looking for a place to eat lunch. We struggled to find an open place. Then we realized it was Sunday.

It is not surprising that in conservative Arkansas, some blue laws – or laws that restrict commerce on Sundays for religious reasons – remain in effect in many areas of the state. Arkansas banned most businesses from opening on Sunday until 1982. Until 2009, he banned all alcohol sales on Sundays, which, in practice, closed many establishments that served alcohol. It was not until July of this year that the town of Fort Smith repeal a law prohibiting dancing Sundays. Many towns in Arkansas, including more left-wing university towns, still maintain a wide range of local blue laws, especially when it comes to alcoholic beverages.

While I am not aware of a specific law that led to my difficulty finding a place to eat in Little Rock, the cultural The tradition of the Blue Laws was strong enough that restaurants offering Sunday brunch seemed much less common than in the more secularized places where I lived.

And at a time when workers’ protections are dwindling, progressives and religious conservatives should unite to push for more blue laws that protect the sanctity of life outside of work.

American life is increasingly market driven. Religious organizations have traditionally provided an antidote.

Over the past 50 years, many of the institutions that once protected American workers and families from the ravages of unbridled capitalist excesses have eroded. The most important institution that can come to mind is the trade union: once powerful bodies that advocated shorter working days, longer weekends, better wages and safer working conditions, today hui, unions represent only 10 percent of American workers.

But unions aren’t the only social institution that once sought to make time for Americans out of work. Religious bodies have, from time immemorial, claimed certain days and hours for themselves, except for worship, prayer or rest. The Jewish Sabbath is perhaps the most notable example of this practice, but virtually all religions have some sense of the times that are set apart, in which many forms of work or commerce are taboo. These restrictions are known as “blue laws,” and in today’s climate of economic anxiety, religious conservatives and economic progressives should join hands to restore them.

Although these practices have their origins in various types of religious beliefs, they ultimately form part of what economic historians would call a “moral economy”, or an economic system where the moral or ethical standards of a society are sufficiently high. strong so that, with or without government intervention, certain values ​​are privileged over the market itself.

Industrialization has largely destroyed this system, but parts of it, such as abstaining from work during church hours in Christian societies, have remained normative or have been enshrined in law. In the United States, the “blue laws,” so called because of the blue paper that Puritan rulers printed Sunday trade restrictions on, date back to at least the 18th century. Many forms of commerce were regulated or restricted so that workers spent time in church or with their families.

Blue laws continue to decline in the United States

Today, blue laws are increasingly rare. The last full day restriction on trading in North Dakota was repealed in 1991. The only place in America where general retailing remains completely banned on Sundays is Bergen County, New Jersey, where the law remains popular: a 2013 push for the repeal could not even get enough signatures to appear on the ballot. I’m not aware of a poll on this issue to determine what the partisan mix of support for the county’s blue laws might be, but the vote share for the Bergen County presidential election was about the same as that of state of new jersey overall, which means it’s gone for Hillary Clinton.

Many states and counties in the United States have a wide range of partial restrictions on certain hours or certain businesses for religious reasons. North Dakota bans retail before noon on Sundays, although voters may have the option to repeal the statewide restriction in a November voting measure. A lot of states and counties restrict the sale of alcohol or cars on Sundays, and many places also, somewhat oddly, restrict hunt Sundays.

But while the very secular spirit may celebrate the end of blue laws, seeing them as a violation of the Church-State separation, the result of the abrogations of the Blue Law may be markedly non-progressive. To start, the Supreme Court has ruled on numerous occasions, and quite recently, than blue laws are constitutional: the state can prohibit business activities on certain days, even if the days are chosen for apparently religious reasons. The reasoning is that the state may have an interest in people spending social time away from work or commerce in a coordinated fashion, and it is reasonable for the state to adapt to existing social forms, such as religion.

While this may seem like a back door to establishing religion, it is actually a markedly progressive view of how the law works. Implicitly, in approving the blue laws, the Supreme Court accepts the view that the state can implement very specific, seemingly arbitrary rules to achieve non-economic and general welfare goals, such as ” leisure time for workers ”.

In other words, blue laws are also a way for the state to dedicate special time to citizens to exercise their rights of assembly, religious and secular. The Assembly requires people to be away together, so it doesn’t work to just require businesses to close for a random 24 hour period, as it does not ensure that people are away together. The state can’t force you to go to church or a community meeting or spend time with loved ones, but it can force your employer to go out of business, increasing the chances that you invest in social capital and civic instead of paid work.

This compelling interest in unity is vital, as it suggests that the state may have a valid legal interest in supporting the formation of strong communities and social bonds outside of taxable employment.

Progressives have a lot to celebrate about blue laws

Conservatives and progressives have already found common ground on this issue: Unions have historically supported blue laws. In addition to stimulating religious participation and reinforcing civic behaviors like voting, blue laws also serve to protect huge swathes of working-class service sector employees (who in today’s world , often do not have access to union representation) against arbitrary schedules and seven days. working week days.

In the absence of strong unions, Blue Laws are a vital stopgap policy for progressives, and possibly a more feasible policy given the political success of state right to work laws in recent years. Without blue laws, the five-day workweek – and generations of union activism – is in serious jeopardy.

Even beyond the service industry, more and more white-collar workers are seeing their time taken over by emails, Slack messages, and other work responsibilities. A sweeping law restricting the ability of non-essential businesses to operate one day a week would go a long way in protecting workers from the rampant commodification of every second of their time. Clearly, it would make sense to legally prohibit your boss from expecting you to respond to an email on Sunday morning.

The blue laws are sometimes opposed for reasons of efficiency: the service sector, we are told, must be open on weekends, so that other workers can obtain these services. It is true that essential services should probably remain open whatever the day. But brunch is not as essential as emergencies. No one dies if they can’t buy a flat screen TV on Sunday.

Specifically, this logic implies that service sector workers should be a permanent second class of workers: rather than simply providing services, service workers are defined as existing to serve higher status workers. Economists call labor the “service sector” because it does not produce a physical commodity; but increasingly, the “service sector” seems to be used to refer to social class.

All over the world, blue laws are widely practiced: most of France until recently was covered by restrictive Sunday laws, but the neoliberal government of President Emmanuel Macron opened the sunday shops. Much of Germany is covered by blue laws, especially in religious Bavaria. Poland recently implemented blue laws to give service workers and families time together.

The social choice to protect a single day of the week for society to collectively withdraw from work and commerce and spend time together should be approved across the political spectrum (except, perhaps, among totalitarians and libertarians. ; the former due to a distaste for robust private assembly, the latter due to an overzealous desire for the universal commercialization of humanity).

And yet, the blue laws continue to fall apart. They are troublesome for a busy society. But their downside is precisely why they must be defended, and defended as a matter of legal requirement. People need to have their rest protected from the constant encroachment of business, especially at the hands of business.

Lyman Stone, a columnist for Vox, is a regional population economics researcher who blogs at In a state of migration. He is also an agricultural economist at the USDA. Find him on Twitter @lymanstoneky.


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