Blue Laws and the First Amendment

Blue laws aim to use public policies to revitalize America spiritually, yet supporters must acknowledge that government cannot create worshipful hearts any more than Prohibition promoted voluntary sobriety.

Most blue laws about everyday activities faded by the end of the 19th century, yet rules protecting Sunday as a rest day remain commonplace. Some claim the name derives from Samuel Peters’ General History of Connecticut (1781), printed on blue paper.


Blue laws were initially designed to enforce moral standards by restricting certain Sunday activities, such as alcohol sales or automobile purchases. Although most regulations were abolished or unenforced after the American Revolution, some remain on the books and remain effective today; however, as American society has become more diverse, their underlying religious justification has come under attack, and nonreligious reasons must now be found for their continuation for these laws to survive.

Blue Law refers to Colonial regulations which regulated behavior and guarded against moral offenses such as lying, drunkenness, gambling, and public card and dice playing. These rules were sometimes printed on blue paper or bound with blue covers – hence their nickname – though Reverend Samuel Peters from Connecticut popularized the phrase through a pamphlet to criticize laws passed in 1762 by a Puritan colony of New Haven.

Blue laws eventually lost favor, giving way to other forms of social regulation based on secular concerns like crime prevention and consumer protection. But during the Prohibition movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many communities again instituted blue laws to encourage Sabbath observance while curbing commercial activity on Sundays; their popularity received a further boost from nationwide efforts to outlaw alcohol consumption.

As America became more diverse, blue laws started to lose their impact; most were repealed or left unenforced altogether. Today only in certain localities are there still blue laws in effect – most restrict alcohol sales on Sundays; However, many Americans may not observe religious traditions; others find watching the Sabbath essential to their quality of life.

Numerous groups, from business interests to labor unions, have long advocated for blue laws as a means of protecting service-sector workers from seven-day workweeks and irregular scheduling practices. This has given state legislatures and courts more freedom in making decisions not solely driven by religious concerns.

Some have recently argued that blue laws violate the First Amendment by forcing individuals to choose religion and livelihood. But the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld blue laws under the Constitution; their advocates point out they promote social cohesion among citizens while encouraging leisure time spent with family and friends – goals which the state should prioritize if it hopes to retain constitutional legitimacy – otherwise, its power over Americans could wane quickly – not ideal as we move toward increased religious diversity in this nation.


Many who are affected by blue laws believe they violate the separation between church and state, which is at the core of the First Amendment. Particularly on Sundays when restrictions promote the worship of God or Christian morality, Sunday blue laws could potentially violate the Establishment Clause in the Constitution; however, according to Supreme Court precedent, they can serve a secular purpose, such as providing postal workers a day off work or other service workers with respite days.

Today’s society should embrace a weekly decision to set aside one day devoted to family and friendship by law – especially for low-wage workers without access to childcare or paid leave – for family time and reflection. Blue laws have long been supported by labor unions which support them.

Blue laws were revived during the temperance movement of the 19th century through organized efforts led by labor and church groups to protect small local shops from being outshone by chains and discount stores. Small local shops feared they would need to work seven days a week to compete without the means to hire additional staff for Sunday services.

Critics contend that blue laws are overly restrictive, interfering with consumers’ freedom of choice. Others argue that blue laws serve an essential purpose in protecting workers and communities and upholding religious freedom; additionally, they also help boost economic activity by steering shoppers away from malls toward local grocery stores where they spend more money.

Notably, consumers in most of the U.S. do not support repealing blue laws despite any inconveniences associated with their implementation; according to a poll conducted in August 2014, nearly one-third of voters supported keeping them in place.

Finally, it should be noted that while many are frustrated by blue laws and believe they should be altered or abolished, too few take action to change them. This highlights how detached the public has become from this issue – a problem we should work on to address. Lyman Stone is a Vox columnist and regional population economist researcher. You can follow him at In a State of Migration blog, Twitter @lymanstone, or InstaGator @lymanstone for updates.