What is a Blue Law?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

A blue law is symptomatic of a lack of separation between church and state, in some countries, like the US and Canada where government may boast of this separation. They arise from Christian perspectives in most cases, primarily mainstream Protestantism or Catholicism and are aimed at enforcing moral code. Most particularly, the majority of blue laws were enacted to provide that the Sabbath, which usually meant Sunday, was truly a day of rest, and not a day to drink alcohol, shop, work, or hunt. Although some of these laws are still on the books, many of them have been abolished over time.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

Puritan colonies in the New World generally had certain blue laws in place. Businesses were allowed to operate on Sundays only in very limited form. Sunday was meant for worship alone, and God had decreed it as a day of rest, according to Puritan beliefs. Not observing the Sabbath with due reverence was an affront to God.

Unfortunately the intent of the blue law, especially as population and religious diversity increased in the US, was viewed as a direct hit to people who worship the Sabbath, Shabbat on Saturday, or who didn’t worship at all. How would a Jewish person or a Seventh Day Adventist manage their weekends when Saturdays and not Sundays are considered the traditional day for worship? Closing businesses or being banned from certain activities on the one weekend day available to such folks, in most cases Sunday, could make things challenging.

Sometimes a blue law had built in exceptions if you were Jewish. A Jewish person might need to close their shops or businesses on Saturday instead of on Sunday. All other businesses were closed on Sunday.

There are a number of leftover blue laws which have not been repealed in various states, cities or counties. In Bergen County, New Jersey, one of the largest shopping districts of New Jersey, retail stores must be closed on Sundays. This can be a hardship for the many people of the Jewish faith in the county. In New Haven, Connecticut, liquor sales are banned on Sundays, a leftover blue law which used to ban most business operation on that day.

Many blue laws held at least through the mid 1980s. Some prohibited selling of machines designed for “work” like kitchen wares, or washing machines. A few even limited the selling of light fixtures. Liquor stores or bars might be closed for at least part of the day, or in some cases closed all day on Sunday. In a handful of states, cars could not be bought or sold on Sundays until 1985.

Some people, not of religious background, miss the blue laws simply because they guaranteed workers at least one day of rest. Some businesses compromise by opening later on Sundays than they do on most other days, and by closing on major holidays. This trend is changing too, with many large retail outlets and most grocery stores now operating on holidays even if the hours are more limited. Non-religious holidays, too, like observation of Veteran’s Day or Labor Day used to mean almost all businesses were closed. This has changed significantly, especially in the retail industry where these holidays are now viewed as shopping days, with lots of sales meant to draw consumers out to shop.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


I remember most of our stores downtown would only be open from 1pm to 5pm on Sundays because of blue laws. It seems like we all got used to the idea of getting our business done on other days. If we needed anything, it could usually wait until Monday.


When I worked for a hotel in a state that still enforced some blue laws, guests would approach me on Sunday mornings and ask where they could purchase some alcohol. Our hotel bar was closed on Sundays, and the local beverage stores were not allowed to sell alcoholic beverages on that day, either. I'd have to direct those guests to a larger city over 20 miles away. They usually decided it wasn't worth the effort just to get a bottle of booze.

Post your comments
Forgot password?