Blue laws have a long history that begins well before the United States was a country. While these laws mainly refer to restrictions on alcohol sales, they were also used to restrict more than that. California hasn't had blue laws in place for over a hundred years, but like other states, it does regulate alcohol.
What Are Blue Laws?
Blue laws restrict certain secular activities on a Sunday. They go back as far as 13th-century England and have covered various activities, but are most well-known for their connection to alcohol. Colonists enacted blue laws when they came to America with the intent of honoring the Sabbath.
When the Colonies became states, blue laws continued, and as new states came into existence, they adopted them. Bans from using birth control and hunting to wearing ornate shirtsleeves were once in place, but laws relating to everyday activities were mostly done away with by the end of the Colonial period; restrictions on alcohol and preserving Sunday as a day of rest remained.
How the term "blue law" originated is not known. However, the earliest use of the phrase appeared in 1781 in a book by Reverend Samuel Peters called General History of Connecticut. The term "blue" has come to represent indecent behavior, blasphemy and drinking.
Nationwide Repeal of Alcohol
Throughout the 19th-century and into the 20th, religious revivalism led to increased calls for temperance. As early as 1838, Massachusetts passed a law banning alcohol sales if less than 15 gallons were sold at a time. While the law didn't last, other states followed with their own restrictions.
Congress ratified the 18th Amendment to the Constitution at the beginning of 1919. It banned the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors nationwide. In October of that year, Congress passed the Volstead Act, which provided enforcement of the 18th Amendment. Prohibition lasted until December 1933, when Congress passed the 21st Amendment to repeal it. The 18th Amendment is the only amendment in U.S. history that Congress has ever repealed.
Defining Bone-dry Laws
Even before prohibition, some states had laws on the books banning alcohol and they were even stricter. These were known as bone-dry laws. The states that didn't have bone-dry laws in place passed them during prohibition in an attempt to stop widespread bootlegging. For example, Indiana banned the use of alcohol for any reason, including medicinal and sacramental purposes and increased penalties for violations.
Oklahoma's bone-dry law also included a ban on alcohol for religious purposes and instituted severe penalties for breaking the law, including jail time. The Roman Catholic Church challenged the law, but it was remained in place until 1959. Despite states' efforts to curb bootlegging, it continued.
California Blue Laws Cease
In the 19th century, California had blue laws, but they didn't last long. In 1858, a tailor named Morris Newman kept his shop open on a Sunday. He faced arrest for violating "an Act for the better observance of the Sabbath." He was found guilty and fined $25, which he refused to pay. The court ordered his imprisonment for 45 days. Newman was Jewish and so he celebrated the Sabbath on Saturdays and kept his shop open on Sundays, a Christian day of rest as deemed by the state.
Public opposition and court decisions would take down Sunday closing laws in California. Just a few months after the arrest of Morris Newman, the California Supreme Court declared Sunday laws unconstitutional. The state revived them in 1861, but they were repealed in 1883. By 1921, two states – California and Oregon – were the only states without blue laws.
U.S. Supreme Court Deems Blue Laws Constitutional
Public opposition to blue laws came to a head in the 1950s and 1960s as people believed they violated the First Amendment's establishment clause, which explicitly prohibits laws respecting an "establishment of religion." By defining Sunday as the Sabbath, and therefore, a day of rest, states favored Christianity over religions with different Sabbath days.
In a 1961 landmark case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that department store employees fined for making sales on a Sunday had indeed violated blue laws. It noted that while the laws stemmed from the Christian faith and encouraged attendance in church, they were also suitable for providing all citizens with a uniform day of rest and promoted secular values of general well-being, health and safety.
Labor unions and trade associations also continued their support of blue laws for this reason. Despite this, states have removed religious language from blue laws, and most restrictions are no longer in place. Some states have repealed them altogether or eased their requirements due to primarily economic motivation, as most businesses cannot afford to stay closed for a day.
General Alcohol Laws in California
While California has not had blue laws in over a century, it does have restrictions on alcohol, as all states do. These include:
- Legal drinking age is 21.
- Age to serve alcohol in a cocktail bar is 21, or 18 if server is also serving food.
- Age to pour alcohol is 21.
- Age to sell packaged liquor is 18.
People under the legal drinking age cannot enter and stay in an establishment with a green ABC license unless they have lawful business there. Establishments with this license must place a visible sign at each public entrance to the building and just inside stating that minors cannot come in. Minors may, however, enter businesses with pink-colored ABC licenses. Parents and legal guardians cannot furnish minors with alcohol or allow them to drink it unless it is part of a religious service in any location in California – they face misdemeanor charges if they do.
California State Law and Alcohol Sales
Not only are California residents barred from selling alcohol to minors, but they also cannot sell to intoxicated people or "habitual drunkards." Establishments that serve free wine or beer and are not restaurants or bars can offer these beverages to their customers if they are over the legal drinking age, but can serve just 6 ounces of wine or 12 ounces of beer to each person. Powdered alcohol is also illegal.
Alcoholic beverages are for sale at licensed facilities, which include grocery stores between the hours of 6 a.m. and 2 a.m. each day, including Sunday. Alcohol cannot be on display within 5 feet of a cash register in gas stations. The owner of an establishment that sells liquor between the hours of 2:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. faces a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
States That Have Blue Laws
Although California does not have blue laws, some states still do, as do some counties across the U.S. These laws mostly regulate alcohol, but some regulate sales of other products and restrict some activities on Sundays. For example:
- Delaware allows the sale of alcohol between 9 a.m. to 1 a.m.
- Illinois does not allow car dealerships to operate. Horse racing is also off-limits unless a local municipality authorizes it.
- Indiana allows alcohol sales between noon and 8 p.m. only.
- Maine prohibits hunting.
- Maryland does not allow the playing of professional sports before 1 p.m.
- In Massachusetts, some businesses may have controlled hours and some must pay employees more money.
- Michigan forbids car sales or otherwise transferring ownership.
- Minnesota liquor stores can operate between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. The state forbids car sales or otherwise transferring ownership.
- Mississippi does not allow the sale of alcohol.
- Nevada forbids car sales or otherwise transferring ownership. Prohibits watering grass.
- New Jersey prohibits shopping for clothing, furniture and electronics.
- New Mexico prohibits alcohol sales.
- North Carolina prohibits alcohol sales between 2 a.m and either 10 a.m. or noon, depending on the county; gun hunting between 9:30 a.m and 12:30 p.m is banned.
Additionally, Oklahoma forbids car sales or otherwise transferring ownership and packaged liquor sales. Pennsylvania prohibits car sales and hunting all animals except foxes, crows or coyotes. Tennessee prohibits on-premises alcohol consumption between 3 a.m. and 10 a.m. or noon. Texas does not allow car dealerships to stay open on both weekend days, but a business can choose which day of the weekend they would prefer; retailers can sell beer and wine for consumption off-premises from noon until midnight. Finally, Utah closes all liquor stores on Sundays.
- The First Amendment Encyclopedia: Sunday Blue Laws
- History: Prohibition
- Alcohol Problems and Solutions: Bone Dry Laws
- The Free Library: What's Sunday All About? The Rise and Fall of California's Sunday Closing Law
- Today in Civil Liberties History: California, Oregon Only States Without “Sunday” Laws
- Alcohol Problems and Solutions: California Alcohol Laws
- American Addiction Centers: Losing a Liquor License
- Shouse Law: Legal Definition of Misdemeanor in California Law
- World Population Review: Blue Laws By State 2021
Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.