Sunday Closing Cases and Laws

2012-09-12 10:43:54


Sunday Closing Laws, also called ‘‘Blue Laws,’’ regulate public and private conduct on Sundays. The legal and cultural significance of Blue Laws peaked in early American history, when they mandated church attendance and prohibited activities including working, making contracts, playing sports, and traveling on Sundays. Vestiges of Sunday Closing Laws remain part of American law in many communities, commonly requiring businesses to close or otherwise refrain from selling alcoholic beverages or other products on Sundays.

Development of Sunday Closing Laws

Sunday Closing Laws are rooted in the Judeo-Christian religious commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy. The Christian Sabbath shifted from Saturday to Sunday during the reign of the Roman emperor Constantine, who was also the first to codify a Sunday Closing Law in a.d. 321. England instituted Sunday Closing Laws as early as the thirteenth century, from which early American Sunday Closing Laws drew their inspiration.

American colonists enacted Blue Laws soon after settlement. For example, beginning in 1650, the Plymouth Colony proscribed servile work, unnecessary travel, and the sale of alcoholic beverages on the ‘‘Lord’s day.’’ By the time of the Constitution’s adoption, each of the states had laws restricting activities on Sunday, many of which expressly stated their purpose was to promote Christian worship. After the Constitution’s ratification, Blue Laws took on a more secular tone. For example, a 1788 New York Blue Law omitted ‘‘Lord’s day’’ and substituted ‘‘the first day of the week commonly called Sunday.’’ In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Blue Laws remained part of statutory law in every state but became decreasingly enforced.

Incorporation Doctrine and Sunday Closing Laws

Until the middle of the twentieth century, when the Bill of Rights became applicable to the states through the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, courts deciding the legality of cases challenging Blue Laws were not obligated to address conflicts between state laws and the Constitution. However, the incorporation of the federal constitution to individual states changed the manner in which courts reviewed Sunday Closing Laws and resulted in the Supreme Court overturning state laws that violated the First Amendment. The first post-incorporation challenges to Blue Laws were heard in a series of cases decided by the United States Supreme Court in 1961.

Sunday Closing Laws and the Supreme Court: Establishment Clause Cases

In the leading 1961 case, McGowan v. Maryland, the Supreme Court reviewed a Maryland statute that restricted the sale of some products on Sunday. The appellants were employees of a department store indicted for Sunday sales of items forbidden by the Maryland Law. The employees contended that the Maryland statute violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which forbids the government from making any law establishing a state religion (or, under some interpretations, it forbids preferential treatment of one religion over another). The McGowan appellants alleged the statute violated the Establishment Clause by promoting religions that celebrated a Sunday Sabbath over those that did not. The Court rejected this argument, reasoning that although historically Blue Laws had a religious motivation to effectuate concepts of Christian theology, ‘‘[i]n light of the evolution of our Sunday Closing Laws through the centuries, and of their more or less recent emphasis upon secular considerations, it is not difficult to discern that as presently written and administered, most of them, at least, are of a secular rather than of a religious character, and that presently they bear no relationship to establishment of religion . . .’’ The Supreme Court further reasoned that ‘‘the fact that this [prescribed day of rest] is Sunday, a day of particular significance for the dominant Christian sects, does not bar the State from achieving its secular goals. To say that the States cannot prescribe Sunday as a day of rest for these purposes solely because centuries ago such laws had their genesis in religion would give a constitutional interpretation of hostility to the public welfare rather than one of mere separation of church and State.’’ The reasoning from McGowan—that Sunday Closing Laws are valid protections of a secular interest in creating a universal day of rest—received support in a more recent case, Estate of Thornton v. Caldor, Inc. In that case, a state statute requiring employers to honor the Sabbath day of the employee’s choice, even if that day were not Sunday, was held invalid as having the primary effect of promoting religion by weighing the employee’s Sabbath choice over all other interests and therefore violated the Establishment Clause.

Sunday Closing Laws and the Supreme Court: Free Exercise Cases

In two cases decided on the same day in 1961 as McGowan, the Supreme Court also upheld Sunday Closing Laws as constitutional under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, which requires a compelling government interest to restrict religious activities. In both Braunfield v. Brown and Gallagher v. Crown Kosher Market, the adverse effect of the challenged Sunday Closing Laws were to force individuals who did not celebrate a Sunday Sabbath to keep their businesses closed on Sundays. In both cases, the Court held that the challenged Blue Laws were valid because they used the least restrictive means to meet the compelling government interest of creating a universal day of rest. The Court reasoned that because the fact that a person also opted to close their business on Saturdays for religious reasons is an economic disadvantage that was ‘‘solely an indirect burden on the observance of religion’’ and not a government regulation that restricted anyone’s ability to celebrate their religion.


Blue Laws were enacted in the United States as religiously based statutes designed to promote the Christian Sabbath. Despite the initially religious motivation behind Blue Laws, the United States Supreme Court has modernly upheld Sunday Closing Laws as constitutional because they support a valid secular purpose under the First Amendment’s free exercise clause by encouraging a universal day of rest. Likewise, the Supreme Court has also upheld Blue Laws on Establishment Clause grounds because the laws do not promote one religion over another.


References and Further Reading

  • Harris, George. E. A Treatise on Sunday Laws: The Sabbath– the Lord’s Day, Its History and Observance: Civil and Criminal. Rochester: Lawyers’ Co-operative Publishing Co., 1892 (reprinted 1980).
  • Johns, Warren L. Dateline Sunday, U.S.A.: The Story of Three and a Half Centuries of Sunday-law Battles in America. Mountain View: Pacific Press Publishers Association, 1967.
  • McCrossen, Alexis. Holy Day, Holiday: The American Sunday. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Braunfeld v. Brown, 366 U.S. 599 (1961) (plurality opinion)
  • Estate of Thornton v. Calder, Inc., 472 U.S. 703 (1985)
  • Gallagher v. Crown Kosher Market, 366 U.S. 617 (May 29, 1961)
  • McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U.S. 420 (1961)
  • Two Guys v. McGinley, 366 U.S. 582 (1961)

See also Establishment Clause (I): History, Background, Framing; Establishment Clause Doctrine: Supreme Court Jurisprudence; Establishment of Religion and Free Exercise Clauses; Free Exercise Clause (I): History, Background, Framing; Free Exercise Clause Doctrine: Supreme Court Jurisprudence; Incorporation Doctrine; Religion in the Workplace