Alcohol blue laws prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages on Sunday. A blue law is one restricting activities on Sunday. They were to enforce the Christian sabbath. Virginia enacted a blue law in 1617. It required church attendance and authorized the militia to force colonists to attend church services.
II. Court Rulings
III. Religion & Blue Laws
IV. Effects of Blue Laws
Other early blue laws also prohibited work, travel, and recreation. Prohibited work included cooking, shaving, cutting hair, sweeping and making beds. They even prohibited both kissing and engaging in sexual intercourse.
The Puritans believed that a child was born on the same day of the week on which it was conceived. Therefore, the parents of children born on a Sunday were punished for violating the blue law nine months earlier.
Blue laws have operated to protect Christian business owners from competition on their sabbath. However, they don’t protect from competition those (such as Jews and Muslims) whose sabbath is Saturday. Thus blue laws have established a double standard in favor of Christians.
Blue laws requiring Sunday church attendance disappeared in the nineteenth century. That’s because they violated religious freedom. Yet other blue laws have continued to exist into the modern era. Car dealerships in Texas still operate under blue-law prohibitions. Many states prohibit selling alcohol on Sunday, although it’s now the second busiest shopping day of the week.
II. Court Rulings
In 1985, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Lord’s Day Act of 1906 was an unconstitutional. It violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The court found that there was no legitimate secular basis for the legislation. The only purpose was, in effect, to establish a state religious-based requirement, and was therefore invalid.
Similarly, courts in the U.S. have ruled that, because blue laws were created for religious purposes, they are unconstitutional. Nevertheless, alcohol blue laws continue to exist and be enforced.
III. Religion, Morality, and Blue Laws
A. Separate Personal Opinion from Biblical Teachings on Alcohol, Says Minister
Some communities are voting on whether or not to allow Sunday alcohol sales or on whether to overturn old laws prohibiting any sale of alcohol. In virtually all news reports, opposition to such change is organized by a local minister who contends that drinking is prohibited by the Bible or otherwise against the will of God.
The Rev. Dr. Bob LeFavi, the founding pastor at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Rincon, Georgia, expresses concern that people in such communities are only hearing from local religious leaders who oppose alcohol sales or alcohol sales on Sundays and are coming to the conclusion that such an issues is one of Christians against non-Christians.
The Bible says to “use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake” (1 Timothy 5:23). This admonition caused serious problems for temperance writers. They argued that alcohol was a poison and that drinking it was a sin. So they insisted that the Bible was actually advising people to rub alcohol on their abdomens.1
Dr. LeFavi says that what he sees as vital to these debates “is a clear separation between Holy Scripture and personal opinion.” The Bible makes it clear that Jesus drank wine (Matthew 15:11; Luke 7:33-35) and approved of its moderate consumption (Matthew 15:11).
Rev. LeFavi says the Bible makes clear that alcohol beverage is neither good nor bad in itself.
“That it can be used rightly (in celebration, etc.) is seen in Jesus’ attendance at events where alcohol was served. Indeed, in his first miracle at a wedding in Cana, Jesus himself produced wine.
The arguments from some religious leaders that this wine was somehow not what we know as wine today is, according to the consensus of biblical scholars, dramatically overwhelming and greatly at odds with the truth.”
Like it or not, it was wine Jesus produced, which has the same alcohol we find in liquor, and it was wine Jesus gave to his disciples and called his “blood” on the night before he was crucified.
However, some Christians argue that whenever “wine” was used by Jesus or praised as a gift of God, it was really grape juice; only when it caused drunkenness was it wine. Thus, they interpret the Bible as asserting that grape juice is good and that drinking it is acceptable but that alcohol is bad and that drinking it is religiously unacceptable.
During Prohibition, temperance activists hired a scholar to rewrite the Bible by removing all references to alcohol beverage.2
This reasoning appears to be incorrect for at least two reasons. First, neither the Hebrew nor Biblical Greek words for wine can be translated or interpreted as referring to grape juice. 4 The same Hebrew and Greek word is used for the wine that Jesus drank and the wine that made Noah drunk. 5 Second, grape juice would very quickly ferment into wine in the warm climate of the Mediterranean region without refrigeration or modern methods of preservation.
The Bible also makes it clear that Jesus was critical of drunkenness (Luke 21:34, 12:42; Matthew 24:45-51). Rev. LeFavi elaborates:
“That alcohol can be used wrongly is seen in the scriptural admonitions against drunkenness, all of which are clear that God abhors. Therefore, like sex and money, alcohol has the potential to be used by humans to bring about good results or bad results. For Christians, then, the challenge is to ensure alcohol is used rightly.”
Dr. LeFavi argues that the issue of when and where alcohol should be sold is not an issue of Christian versus non-Christian, but one of personal opinion.3
B. Sunday Alcohol Sales Bans: Blue Laws Indefensible
An editorial in South Carolina’s Independent-Mail notes that much of the opposition to Sunday alcohol sales uses religion as its justification.
However, the Independent-Mail argues that
“what is and what is not available for purchase on Sunday has nothing to do with faith or a lack thereof. Faith really doesn’t have that much to do with attending formal church services, if the truth is told. There are plenty of people who have a strong faith but either can’t or simply don’t sit down in a pew once a week.”
Conversely, if someone isn’t among the faithful, the absence of alcohol on Sunday (or the inability to shop before 1:30 p.m.) isn’t going to send him or her running to the nearest church with hopes for a mighty conversion.
“Nowhere in the Bible does it say, ‘Thou shalt not drink alcohol on Sunday.'”
The newspaper observes that “allowing restaurants that already sell alcohol the other six days of the week to offer alcohol on the seventh won’t impact attendance. If it does, churches have a much deeper problem than can be resolved by the absence of alcohol.”
The editorial says “The truth is blue laws and bans on Sunday alcohol sales have less to do with religion than they do with religious fervor to dictate the behavior of others.”4
To that, many will say “Amen.”
IV. Effects of Alcohol Blue Laws
The subject of Sunday alcohol sales is a controversial one and discussions about it tend to be heavily influenced by personal beliefs and emotions.5 However, there is strong scientific research evidence about the effects of Sunday sales on (a) traffic safety and (b) consumption levels.
In 1995, New Mexico lifted its Blue law prohibition against the purchase of packaged or off-premises alcoholic beverages on Sundays. The state permitted licensed package stores to sell alcohol between noon and midnight on Sundays.
Employees of a private research company were paid by an organization that “funds research that can help reduce the harm caused by the use of alcohol” to evaluate the consequences of the change in law.6 They concluded that it “was associated with a rise in alcohol-related crash rates and fatalities.”7
That was a very surprising conclusion, given the following facts.
• The proportion of alcohol-related traffic fatalities on Sundays in New Mexico averaged 60% in the five years before the legalization of package store sales, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That proportion dropped to 47% in the five years following legalization, a decrease of over one-fifth.8
• The number of alcohol-related Sunday crashes averaged 502 for several years before the law went into effect but dropped to 438 for several years afterward, according to the Division of Government Research at the University of New Mexico.9
• There were 27 alcohol-related traffic fatalities on Sundays before the law went into effect, a number that dropped to 15 by the year 2000, according to the Division of Government Research.
The conclusion that Sunday alcohol sales led to higher alcohol-related traffic crashes and fatalities was widely cited in efforts to oppose repeal of alcohol Blue laws.10
For example, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue distributed a press release and published an op-ed in which he used those findings to justify his opposition to lifting the prohibition.11
However, serious inadequacies in the research were obvious. When researchers at the University of Georgia and Clemson University carefully analyzed government-collected data from 1990-2005, they found that there had been no increase in alcohol-related traffic accidents or in alcohol-related crash fatalities after the repeal of the Sunday prohibition.12
Thus, the best and most recent scientific evidence is that Sunday package alcohol sales do not lead to any increase in alcohol-related traffic crashes or deaths.
In 1997, the province of Ontario, the largest single retailer of alcoholic beverages in the world,13 abolished its prohibition against the off-premise purchase of alcohol on Sundays. The change represented a large overall increase in alcohol availability on that day of the week.14
Researchers from the University of California at Irvine utilized this event to determine whether permitting off-premise Sunday alcohol sales led individuals to drink more alcohol on Sundays compared to other days of the week and compared to those in provinces that ban Sunday sales. To do so they analyzed data periodically collected by Canada’s National Population Health Surveys.15
The researchers reported that
“the policy change is not associated with a large increase in overall drinking. The slight increase we observed may, in fact, correspond to a health benefit, because drinking was more evenly smoothed across the days of the week (note that we observed reduced drinking on Saturdays, one of the heaviest drinking days).”16
Thus, the best and most recent scientific evidence is that the Sunday sale of package alcohol does not create a health hazard.
Based on current scientific research evidence, it appears that Sunday package alcohol sales do not increase alcohol-related traffic crashes or fatalities nor do they pose a heath hazard. To the contrary, Sunday sales may reduce heavy drinking on Saturdays, thereby providing a health benefit.
Readings on Alcohol Blue Laws
Blue Laws.Columbia Encyclopedia. NY: Columbia U Press, 6th ed., 2005.
Carpenter, C.S. and Eisenberg, D. Effects of Sunday sales restrictions on overall and day-specific alcohol consumption. J Stud Alco Drugs, 2009, 70, 126-133.
Easing up on blue laws – states profit from tossing out Prohibition-era rules. U.S. News & World Rep, July 21, 2008, 22.
Flowerdew, N. Sunday Blue Laws and other Blessings. Los Angeles: Pacific Press, 1914.
Gibbs on the wisdom of blue laws. Time, Aug 2, 2004, 164(5), 90.
Harper, William G. A Short History of the Texas Blue Laws. M.A. thesis, Texas Tech University, 1973.
Hinman, R. The Blue Laws of Connecticut. NY: Truth Seekers, 1899.
Laband, D., and Heinbuch, D. Blue Laws. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1987.
Machan, T.R. Blue laws are unjust and unequal. Free Inquiry, 2008, 28(6), 21-22.
Maloney, M. and Rudbeck, J. The outcome from legalizing Sunday packaged alcohol sales on traffic accidents. Accid Anal Prev, 2009, 41(5), 1094-1098.
Myers, G. Ye Olden Blue Laws. NY: Century, 1921.
Randal, J. Old-Time Blue Laws. Worcester, MA: Burbank, 1879.
Virtanen, M. Study Says Ending Blue Laws Would Add Jobs, Tax Revenues. AP, June 19, 2002.
Wheildon, W. W. Blue Laws and their Origin. MA: Wheildon, 1886.
1. Edwards, G. Alcohol. NY: St. Martin’s, 2000, p. 167.
2. Facts. American Mix, 2001, 1(1), 4.
3. LeFavi, B. Guest column: Separate Holy Scripture from opinion on alcohol referendum. Savannah Morning News, Dec 13, 2007.
4. Sunday sales dilemma: No legitimate reason to support alcohol ban (editorial). Independent-Mail, Sept 16, 2007
5. Arguments are often religious or personal. For example, an alderman said alcohol shouldn’t be sold when “people should be in church.” (Extension of Sunday alcohol sales causes confusion. Arkansas News Bureau, April 20, 2009)
6. RWJ Foundation. Grant Results. Car Crashes, Fatalities Rise Sharply With New Mexico Sunday Package Liquor Sales. Princeton, NJ: The Foundation, 2007.
7. McMillan, G. and Lapham, S. Effectiveness of bans and laws in reducing traffic deaths. Legalizing Sunday packaged alcohol sales and alcohol-related traffic crashes and crash fatalities in New Mexico. Am J Pub Health, 2006, 96(11), 1944-1948. RWJ Foundation, ibid.
8. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
9. Division of Government Research, U New Mexico.
10. Join Together. Sunday Alcohol-Related Crashes Rise with “Blue Law” Repeal. October 4, 2006. RWJ Foundation, ibid.
11. Perdue, S. The tragic cost of Sunday alcohol sales. Banner-Herald. March 28, 2008.
12. Maloney, M. and Rudbeck, J. The outcome from legalizing Sunday packaged alcohol sales on traffic accidents in New Mexico. Accid Analysis Prev, 2009, 41(5), 1094-1098.
13. More specifically, the Ontario Liquor Control Board (OLCB) is the world’s largest alcoholic beverage retailer. Alcohol Policy Network. 2008.
14. Carpenter, C. and Eisenberg, D. Effects of Sunday sales restrictions on overall and day-specific alcohol consumption. J Stud Alco Drugs, 2009, 70, 126-133.