Thursday, February 2, 2017

Blue Laws and the Supreme Court

In honor of the first session of the United States Supreme Court (February 2, 1790), Jewish Treats looks at one of the first Jewish issues brought before the Supreme Court Justices: Blue Laws.

Blue Laws regulate what activities are allowed on Sunday. The term Blue is connected to an out-of-date language usage suggesting a rigidly moral outlook. While most of the original Blue Laws were designed to protect the Christian Sabbath and included restrictions on business, entertainment and even personal activities (one Connecticut law prohibited mothers from kissing their children!), by the mid-twentieth century it was mostly businesses that were affected.

In 1961, the United States Supreme Court ruled on four different cases that sought to declare the Blue Laws unconstitutional. Two of the four cases involved Jewish litigants: Gallagher vs. Crown Kosher Super Market and Braunfeld vs. Brown. In all four cases, the Supreme Court upheld the existing laws.

Abraham Braunfeld’s suit challenged Pennsylvania’s Blue Laws on the grounds that they violated his ability for economic sustainability because, due to his religious beliefs as one who observes Shabbat, he was unable to do six days of business as his competitors were. Braunfeld owned a retail clothing and home furnishing store in Philadelphia.  Crown Kosher of Springfield, Massachusetts, sought relief from the state laws prohibiting stores from being open on Sunday. They had tried opening their store on Saturday nights, but had found it economically unfeasible. Their case was based on the fact that neither they nor their customers could do business on Saturday and so the enforcement of the Blue Laws violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits legislation preferring one religion over another.

By the 1960s, however, the states that still had Blue Laws had all asserted, and demonstrated, that the purpose of those laws was to create a civil day of rest for the betterment of society. For this reason, in each of these cases, the majority of the Justices ruled that the states’ Blue Laws were constitutional.

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