Friday, August 18, 2006

Blue about Blue Laws

Written in scarlet crayon before bedtime

There is something which has been bugging me for the past couple of years (and I actually probably have written about before… I at least contributed to the Wikipedia entry on this topic) which I would like a fellow PoliSci or Law person to help me out on, particularly one who lives or studies in a Puritan (aka: New England) state. These states, as well as many in the Bible Belt have something known as Blue Laws, which are laws which prohibit certain acts on Sundays, “the Lord’s Day” (which, if you realize my religion from the regular content of my blog, you posit I might dispute the definition of the first day of the week as such, which may come into play as my raison d’etat for my crusade (again, based on my religion, an ironic term)). At its influential height, most work was prohibited in the colonies on the Christian Sabbath, the penalty probably being either a couple of shillings or death by hanging (the former being the penalty at fair old Kings College according to research for the most practically useless class I took at Columbia (actually, Barnard) called “A Social History of Columbia University” (no offense to Professor McCaughey, I really enjoyed the class, but I don’t see a use for it out of the Columbiana Archive or in trivia circles regarding the chronicles of our fine alma mater). Sundaes, according to the docent at the now defunct World of Coca-Cola museum in Las Vegas (though I hear there is still one in the Coke Capital, Atlanta), were invented due to the fact that soft drinks (soda) was forbidden on Sundays during Prohibition because, with liquor being illegal 24/7/365.2422, they had to make something specially illegal on the Sabbath.

Nowadays these states only have laws prohibiting sale of alcohol on Sundays, New York for example has the prohibition on Sunday mornings. I don’t think they put you into the stocks but there is probably a fine or threat on your liquor license.

My question: is this constitutional? Am I, as a non-Christian, allowed to sell liquor (assuming I have a liquor license and a bodega) on the day after my Sabbath on a day known in my tradition and in Israel as the first day of the work week? It’s Super Bowl Sunday or any other important football game I want to watch with friends and I forgot to buy the booze during the week. Can’t I buy a keg in the morning so I have time to put the turducken into the oven?

My first exposure to Blue Laws came in the cult classic movie, PCU (which reminds me: SNAKES ON A mother-f’n PLANE! TODAY!) and even then I thought that there’s something wrong with these laws, mostly because it caused pain on the protagonist characters, wrong as their intentions may have been, you still root for them.

I hope this provokes some discussion (not PCU, but the other stuff) on this last bastion of puritanical punishment for a seemingly arbitrary violation of Sabbath law (In Judaism, alcohol is a very important part of the Sabbath. 3-plus kiddushes over wine (Manischewitz, by the way, became very popular during prohibition and more people went to church (for Manischewitz which apparently is the most popular wine in the world due to the eucharist (Jewish blood apparently demands Jewish wine)) for the only legal source of booze in the country), and just go to any Chabad House for Shabbat Dinner and join in one of their many l’chayims. Obviously you can’t buy alcohol on the Shabbat, but it is so vital to the modern Shabbat experience.

In modern Christianity, in which it seems that all manner of work is down on Sunday even by the religious (correct me if I am wrong, but I see people in Harlem go from church to shops on 125th Street), this prohibition of the sale of alcohol seems to be token and arbitrary and remains in my mind a blatant violation of the First Amendment and separation of Church and State.

What do you think?


Jeff H said...

The First Amendment has nothing to do with liquor consumption. Not even our wacky courts have ever equated drinking with speech.

And do you expect anyone to seriously believe you could "forget" to pick up your booze during the week?

Matt said...

I replied a couple of hours ago but it seems my response never showed up.

The Establshment Clause of the First Amendment demands that no religion may be the preferred religion of the country. This is why I am concerned about the overwhelmingly Christian recipients to the faith-based federal funding. The fact that Sunday is a legal holiday is one thing, but that we are forced to accept by penalty of law the precept of not purchasing alcohol during Sunday morning goes against both Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment.

As for the second part, some regard football as a religion. Alcohol seems to be the preferred drink of said religion. You cannot take that away from them.

nealjking said...

The only relevant law I have heard of is the legislation that permits Indians of a certain tribe to use peyote in their religious ceremonies, while it is outlawed to others. The constitutional basis for this was the freedom to practice religion.

I doubt that a freedom-of-religion interpretation can be extended as far as the sale or purchase of something on Sunday. There is no pressing reason why someone should not be able to remember to buy his booze on Saturday, or Friday.

(By the way, it would help if you would write a bit more concisely, and get to the point more quickly.)

Kris said...

The relevant first amendment clauses read:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

A Congressional ban of alcohol sales on Sundays does not establish a religion anymore than a Congressionally-mandated national speed limit establishes a religion. While the reasoning behind the alcohol sale ban might be religious, the ban itself is not - Congress wouldn't be forcing people to pay taxes to a church or hold church membership as a prerequisite for public office.

I personally think the ban on Sunday alcohol sales is "uncommonly silly", but it *is* constitutional.

BTW, Matt, your understanding of the First Amendment is flawed. The Amendment states that *Congress* cannot pass a law that establishes a religion, a la the Anglican church being the official tax-supported church of 18th-century England. The Amendment says nothing about the religious preferences of the majority of the citizens of the country.

Matt said...

Thank you for your input. I admit I have never fully studied constitutional law, but wouldn't the Supremacy Clause imply that any state law that conflicts with the national laws of the United States would be considered, by definition, unconstitutional, and therefore invalid? Also, hasn't the First Amendment been taken quite loosely for both sides of First Amendment arguments (ie: Oliver Wendell Holmes in Schenck v. US). It is possible that these laws predate even the Articles of Confederation, let alone the Constitution and may be some of the oldest laws still in existence, many hundreds of years old.

I think you have convinced me, but I still equate it to Sharia law, but even that doesn't apply to non-Muslims.

Sean Lynch said...

The constitution was not originally intended to apply to state governments, but the 14th amendment pretty much did away with that. But, since I'm an anarcho-capitalist, I don't really care :)

So, if I were an originalist, I would say "it can't be unconstitutional because it's not a federal law." Actually, even the constitution as it's interpreted today doesn't say anything about the ability of states to do whatever they want that doesn't violate equal protection or restrict interstate commerce.

As a consequentialist anarcho-capitalist I say "It's not as economically efficient as it could be because it's created by a monopoly law-provider."