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A blue law is a type of law designed to enforce religious standards, particularly the observance of a day of worship or rest. In the US, most blue laws have been repealed, declared unconstitutional, or are unenforced; though prohibitions on the sale of alcoholic beverages or prohibitions of almost all commerce on Sundays are still enforced in many areas. Blue laws often prohibit an activity only during certain hours and there are usually exceptions to the prohibition of commerce, like grocery and drug stores. In some places, blue laws may be enforced due to religious principles, but others are retained as a matter of tradition or out of convenience. Some European countries[which?], such as Germany, ban at least some Sunday shopping. In Saudi Arabia, eating in public during the daytime is prohibited during the holy month of Ramadan. In Islam, it is prohibited to trade at the time of the Friday prayer.
The first occurrence of the phrase blue law so far found is in the New-York Mercury of March 3, 1755, where the writer imagines a future newspaper praising the revival of "our Connecticut's old Blue Laws". In his 1781 book General History of Connecticut, the Reverend Samuel Peters (1735–1826) used it to describe various laws first enacted by Puritan colonies in the 17th century that prohibited various activities, recreational as well as commercial, on Sunday (Saturday evening through Sunday night). Sometimes the sale of certain types of merchandise was prohibited, and in some cases all retail and business activity.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence that blue laws were originally printed on blue paper. Rather, the word blue was used in the 17th century as a disparaging reference to rigid moral codes and those who observed them, particularly in blue-stocking, a reference to Oliver Cromwell's supporters in the parliament of 1653. Moreover, although Reverend Peters claimed that the term blue law was originally used by Puritan colonists, his work has since been found to be unreliable. In any event, Peters never asserted that the blue laws were originally printed on blue paper, and this has come to be regarded as an example of false etymology. Another version is that the laws were first bound in books with blue covers.
Southern and mid-western states also passed numerous laws to protect Sunday during the mid to late 19th century. Laws targeted numerous groups including saloon owners, Jews, Seventh-day Adventists, and non-religious peoples. These Sunday laws enacted at the state and local levels would sometimes carry penalties for doing non-religious activities on Sunday as part of an effort to enforce religious observance and church attendance. Numerous people were arrested for playing cards, baseball, and even fixing wagon wheels on Sunday.
In Henry Taber's Faith or Fact, he writes:
The first observance of Sunday—that history records is in the fourth century', when Constantine issued an edict (not requiring its religious observance, but simply abstinence from work) reading, 'let all the judges and people of the town rest and all the various trades be suspended on the venerable day of the sun.' At the time of the issue of this edict, Constantine was a sun-worshiper; therefore it could have had no relation whatsoever to Christianity.
In Texas, for example, blue laws prohibited selling housewares such as pots, pans, and washing machines on Sunday until 1985. In Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma, New Jersey, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, car dealerships continue to operate under blue-law prohibitions in which an automobile may not be purchased or traded on a Sunday. Maryland permits Sunday automobile sales only in the counties of Prince George's, Montgomery, and Howard; similarly, Michigan restricts Sunday sales to only those counties with a population of less than 130,000. Texas and Utah prohibit car dealerships from operating over consecutive weekend days. In some cases these laws were created or retained with the support of those whom they affected, to allow them a day off each week without fear of their competitors still being open.
The Lord's Day Act, which since 1906 had prohibited business transactions from taking place on Sundays, was declared unconstitutional in the 1985 case R. v. Big M Drug Mart Ltd. Calgary police officers witnessed several transactions at the Big M Drug Mart, all of which occurred on a Sunday. Big M was charged with a violation of the Lord's Day Act. A provincial court ruled that the Lord's Day Act was unconstitutional, but the Crown proceeded to appeal all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. In a unanimous 6–0 decision, the Lord's Day Act was ruled an infringement of the freedom of conscience and religion defined in section 2(a) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
However, the court later concluded, in R. v. Edwards Books and Art Ltd.,  (2 S.C.R. 713) that Ontario's Retail Business Holiday Act, which required some Sunday closings, did not violate the Charter because it did not have a religious purpose.
In Chile most services and businesses are closed on both New Year's Day (January 1) and Labor Day (May 1). Alcoholic beverages in Chile are not sold on Sunday mornings, while on election days their sale is prohibited by law during the entire day (starting the Saturday before).
Late in 2010, some Congressmen (after the four-day Bicentennial holiday was proved successful) asked for a law that would forbid the opening of supermarkets and department stores on Sundays, however retailers claimed that Sunday shopping made about 20% of their weekly sales, more than other day of the week, thus preventing the law from taking place.
In the Cook Islands, blue laws were the first written legislation, enacted by the London Missionary Society in 1827, with the consent of ariki (chiefs). In Tonga, the Vava'u Code (1839) was inspired by Methodist missionary teachings, and was a form of blue law. In Niue, certain activities remain forbidden on Sunday, reflecting the country's history of observing Christian Sabbath tradition.
In Vanuatu the sale of alcohol in shops and supermarkets is forbidden from midday Saturday until Monday morning, although it is available at resorts and hotels.
In Norway the sale of alcohol on Sundays and election day is strictly illegal, the sale of alcohol on Saturdays ends at 6 pm, while it ends 8 pm at weekdays.
In Denmark the closing laws restricting retail trade on Sundays have been abolished with effect from October 1, 2012. From then on retail trade is only restricted on public holidays (New Years Day, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Easter Monday, Day of Prayer, Ascension Day, Whit Sunday, Whit Monday, Christmas Day and Boxing Day) and on Constitution Day, Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve (on New Year's Eve from 3 pm only). On these days almost all shops will remain closed. Exempt are bakeries, DIYs, garden centres, gas stations and smaller supermarkets.
In Thailand, stores are banned from selling alcohol between midnight-11am and 2pm-5pm. Alcohol sales are also banned during many holidays, especially those related to the King of Thailand, and election periods. The ban is sometimes skirted by wrapping newspaper or other covering around beer bottles so as to not openly violate it, especially at venues serving tourists.
Many states prohibit selling alcohol for on and off-premise sales in one form or another on Sundays at some restricted time, under the idea that people should be in church on Sunday morning, or at least not drinking.
Another feature of blue laws in the United States restricts the purchase of particular items on Sundays. Some of these laws restrict the ability to buy cars, groceries, office supplies, and housewares among other things. Though most of these laws have been relaxed or repealed in most states, they are still enforced in some other states.
Some states prohibit hunting in various degrees on Sundays.
Blue laws may also prohibit retail activity on days other than Sunday. In Massachusetts and Connecticut, for example, blue laws dating to the Puritans of the 17th century still prohibit most retail stores, including grocery stores, from opening on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The Supreme Court of the United States held in its landmark case, McGowan v. Maryland (1961), that Maryland's blue laws violated neither the Free Exercise Clause nor the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. It approved the state's blue law restricting commercial activities on Sunday, noting that while such laws originated to encourage attendance at Christian churches, the contemporary Maryland laws were intended to serve "to provide a uniform day of rest for all citizens" on a secular basis and to promote the secular values of "health, safety, recreation, and general well-being" through a common day of rest. That this day coincides with Christian Sabbath is not a bar to the state's secular goals; it neither reduces its effectiveness for secular purposes nor prevents adherents of other religions from observing their own holy days.
There were four landmark Sunday-law cases altogether in 1961. The other three were Gallagher v. Crown Kosher Super Market of Mass., Inc., 366 U.S. 617 (1961); Braunfeld v. Brown, 366 U.S. 599 (1961); Two Guys from Harrison vs. McGinley, 366 U.S. 582 (1961).
In March 2006, Texas judges upheld the state blue law that requires car dealerships to close either Saturday or Sunday each weekend.