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Economic Blues Could Lead to the End of Blue Laws

February 25, 2009 11:28 AM
by Anne Szustek
Amid the recession, laws banning Sunday business hours and alcohol sales have been criticized as being outdated and a deterrent to potential revenue.

Does Economic Downturn Mean Demise of Blue Laws?

State legislatures across the country are debating whether to tap into the potential millions in sales tax revenues that could come from Sunday alcohol sales.

Minnesota, Alabama, Texas, Georgia and Connecticut have heavy constituent support for overturning their blue laws, which generally trace their roots to early state founders who sought to keep holy the Christian Sabbath day.

According to Time magazine, three states forbid the sale of beer, wine and hard liquor on Sunday: Indiana, Connecticut and Georgia. Fifteen other states prohibit sales of liquor on Sundays.

But in today’s pluralistic America, not all devote their Sundays to religious worship. Auburn University economics professor David Laband, the author of “Blue Laws: The History, Economics, and Politics of Sunday-Closing Laws,” told Time magazine, “People have got a lot of activities that occupy their time, attention and affection on Sunday and shopping is one of them,” he said. “Churches have had to come to grips with that; they haven’t drawn a line in the sand and said ‘You have to go to church.’ So the trend is clear that states will do away with some of these alcohol prohibitions. It will happen. It’s just a matter of when.”

In Georgia, that time could come as early as this week, when the state’s Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee is set to vote on a proposal that would green-light alcohol sales by grocery and liquor stores on Sundays. Restaurants and bars in many parts of Georgia can sell alcohol on Sundays.

Such a measure already enjoys popular support in the state, as evidenced by the rise of a Facebook group coming out for Sunday alcohol sales and a Web petition with more 50,000 signatures. Two-thirds of those polled by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in January 2008 supported store-based alcohol sales on Sundays.

Representatives of convenience stores located near Georgia’s border with South Carolina lament the loss of Sunday business. And as Kyle Branch, a zone manager for grocery store chain Kroger, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sunday generally sees the highest volume grocery sales of the week.

Anti-blue law bills coming before the Texas state legislature have been crafted to assuage similar concerns. Two bills under debate in the state Senate specifically address alcohol sales along the Texas-Mexico border. Texas House Bill 863, which would permit liquor stores to operate on Sundays, would generate some $5 million to $8 million in extra sales tax revenue, says state Rep. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio.

“States are seeing Sunday sales as a positive way to raise revenue without raising taxes or cutting valuable programs,” Distilled Spirits Council of the United States spokesperson Ben Jenkins told Time magazine.

Some, including those in the liquor sales sector, see the potential gain in revenue as accompanying losses elsewhere, however.

Background: Blue laws in America

David Jabour, the owner of Austin, Texas-based chain Twin Liquors, does not support Sunday liquor store sales, and says that the liquor store trade organization Texas Package Stores Association is not in favor of the change either.

"There might ultimately be an added bottle sold, but in order to get that added bottle sold, more money would need to be spent” for labor and operating costs, Jabour told News 8 Austin.

There’s also the inherent value in giving employees a day of rest, regardless of the original religious basis. In 1961, 49 states had laws limiting business hours on Sundays. The secular cause of worker protection was cited in a 1961 Supreme Court decision upholding Maryland’s blue law, as Slate points out.

Regardless, the push for revenue has since won out in most states. Among the remaining vestiges of Sunday sales prohibitions, however, is Bergen County, N.J., “which prohibit[s] most shops that sell clothing, furniture, building supplies, home furnishings and appliances from opening on Sundays,” according to The New York Times.

Although it guarantees time off for many retail-sector employees, the Bergen County law often results in residents driving to nearby counties to do their Sunday shopping.

Opinion & Analysis: Temperance—to what extent?

There is also the question of separation of church and secular life. “[T]he best reason to repeal a particularly inconvenient ‘blue law’ is that it removes a barrier that needn't exist,” according to a Hartford Courant editorial. “If you want to buy a six-pack on Sunday for an impromptu barbecue, why should the state and mom-and-pop store owners say no?”

Because it could put more drunk drivers on the road, says Georgia state Christian Coalition head Jim Beck, who is working to incorporate curbs on underage drinking in his state’s anti-blue law bills.

“What’s more important, a few tax dollars or the safety of our families?” the Rev. Ray Newman of the Georgia Baptist Convention told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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