A History of ‘Blue Laws’

December 14, 2011

Growing up, I remember a time when most stores were not open on Sundays. From colonial times until fairly recently, a set of laws has historically limited activity on Sundays in deference to “a common day of rest.” Initially, the laws were enacted by Puritan colonists in respect of the Christian Sabbath. Over time, these laws lost the support of citizens who either wanted to be able to shop or store owners who wanted to gain an extra day of sales. Eventually, the Sunday closing laws were phased out through a series of court decisions, but some traditions remain. Next time you venture out on a Sunday to visit a shopping center, remember that Connecticut residents have not always been able to do so.

How did these laws come about? It all started with the founding of Connecticut as a British colony. Under the leadership of Reverend John Davenport, a Puritan group arrived in Boston in 1637 but soon decided that religious observances in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were too laid back. In the following year, they set out under Theophilus Eaton to find their own land. After purchasing land from the Quinnipiac tribe, the group formed the Colony of New Haven and Mr. Eaton became its first governor. In 1655, Gov. Eaton created the initial statutes of the Blue Laws with the help of Reverend John Cotton. After approval, the laws were distributed to residents of New Haven and vestiges have remained in our government ever since.

In more recent years, the blue laws played an interesting role in our state’s economy. Most stores followed the closing laws until the 1960s when some store owners and consumers wanted the ability to sell items or shop on Sundays. Believe it or not, some store owners were actually arrested for violating the Sunday closing law, including some merchants at the well-known Olde Mistick Village in 1973. Later in 1979, the Connecticut Supreme Court made an initial judgment to loosen up the law so that it affected only certain businesses. Finally in 1994, the state Supreme Court ruled that the laws were unconstitutional because there was no rational basis for allowing some businesses to remain open while others were required to close.

While many blue laws around the country have been repealed or are simply unenforced, some of these laws are still in effect in our state. Two that most often come to mind are restrictions on purchasing alcohol and hunting on Sunday. Connecticut law has prohibited Sunday alcohol sales since at least 1882 and Sunday hunting since at least 1877. In recent legislative sessions, there have been movements to repeal both of these limitations without much success. I have heard from many people who would like to have the ability to purchase alcohol on Sunday. Interestingly enough, there is an exception to the rule that allows farm markets to sell the wine that they have produced. However, some stores express concern that the costs of staying open for an extra day would negatively impact their finances even with any potential increase in patronage. As for hunting restrictions, many believe allowing the practice would improve deer management. Towns that have higher populations of deer typically spend more money repairing damage to vegetation and responding to collisions with vehicles. You can be sure that the debate over these issues will continue in the coming years.

Whether you think the blue laws were useful in encouraging a “day of rest” or simply stood in the way of a customer’s ability to shop, they are an inherent part of Connecticut history. They are also a great example of the living nature of our government. Over time, the legislature creates new laws, and it can change or repeal old ones. Each branch of the government plays a role, including the courts which in this case ended up overturning some of the blue laws. This Sunday, think about how different life might be if blue laws were still on the books.