Colorado still has many ‘blue laws’
Those were the days … of blue laws. What exactly is (or was) a blue law?
Some states — Colorado among them — have controversial laws that stem from religious beliefs, collectively known as “blue laws.” They are remnants of a former puritanical time and, some might say, a long-ago attempt to establish a theocracy in the United States (or at least in several of the states). The oppressive nature (and questionable constitutionality) of these laws has led to the repeal of some blue laws. However, many blue laws remain in place, including at least some in Colorado.
But why “blue?” Why not, say, hazel?
There are at least two theories. One goes like this: The name may derive from Samuel A. Peters’ “General History of Connecticut” (1781), which purported to list the rigid Sabbath regulations at New Haven. The work was printed on blue paper. Perhaps more plausibly, the term derives from on the 18th century usage of the word “blue” meaning “rigidly moral” in a disparaging sense. Some believe that those who adhered to a moral rigid code were supporters of Oliver Cromwell in the British parliament of 1653 who, apparently, wore blue stockings.
In any event, in their strictest application, blue laws usually forbade laboring on Sunday, plus any buying, selling, traveling, public entertainment or sports. In general, blue laws lapsed after the American Revolution. As late as the 1990s, however, at least some blue laws remained on the statutes in some states.
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Among the blue laws that had legs (presumably clad in blue stockings) were laws that forbade the sale of liquor and cars on Sunday. Bergen County, N.J., is a hold-out in that its blue laws ban the sale of clothing, shoes, furniture, home supplies and appliances on Sundays. Paramus, N.J., bans any type of worldly employment on Sundays except necessity items such as food and gasoline.
Until 2008, Colorado, like many other states, prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sundays.
Some blue laws that are infrequently enforced exist in individual cities and counties within Colorado. In Logan County, it is illegal for a man to kiss a woman while she sleeps. In Alamosa, a law restricts people from keeping a house where “unmarried persons are allowed to have sex.” In Durango, it is unlawful to appear in public dressed in a manner “unbecoming” to your sex. In Denver, you may not drive a black car on Sundays.
COURTS WEIGH IN ON BLUE LAWS
Perhaps some attention should be given to these matters. The courts, of course, have weighed in on these laws.
In 1961, the Supreme Court resolved the constitutionality of blue laws in McGowan v. Maryland. At issue was a state of Maryland law that mandated that many businesses must be closed on Sunday. Occupations of necessity or charity (including hospitals) were exempted from the law. Department stores could open on Sunday, but only certain retail items could be sold on the Sabbath (including, oddly, tobacco). Maryland fined the employees of a department store for selling items that included a notebook, a can of floor wax, a stapler and staples, and — scandalously — a toy submarine.
The employees appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Maryland blue law violated the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment as well as the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. They contended that the law was based on specific religious beliefs and compelled all persons to minimally observe the Christian day of worship.
The Court rejected these arguments and upheld the law. Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing for the majority, acknowledged that the law and other similar laws had originally been enacted for religious purposes but concluded that the Sunday closing laws had evolved to fulfill secular ends. What remains in many states is the blue ban on the purchase of alcohol on Sundays. The vestige of another time or, perhaps, simply an accounting of which of the 50 states don’t have an NFL football home team on the day of rest.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the Law Firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddison, Tharp & Weinberg, LLC. Reach him at 970-926-4461 or Robbins@SLBLaw.com.