Thursday, June 16, 2016

Alcohol, Gambling and Golf: The Long History of Blue Laws in New York

Legend has it that George Washington, whose statue is outside Federal Hall on Wall Street, was chided for traveling on Sunday after he had been elected president.

JUNE 15, 2016

Legend has it that in 1789, George Washington, the nation’s newly elected president, was riding on horseback from Connecticut to New York when he was detained by a local official for violating the Sunday “blue law” ban against traveling. The president supposedly got off with just a reprimand after explaining that he was on his way to church.

Under a bill that the New York State Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo agreed to this week, instead of attending services Washington could have headed to Manhattan and legally had a Bloody Mary for brunch. Alcohol sales at restaurants and bars, now banned from 4 a.m. until noon on Sundays, would be allowed, beginning at 10 a.m.

Once again, the Almighty Dollar has intruded on a worshipful tradition that dates from at least A.D. 321, when Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, proclaimed that “all judges, city people and craftsmen shall rest on the venerable day of the Sun.”

The Puritans in Virginia and New England transplanted the Sabbatarian tradition to America (they bound their religious laws in blue books, which might account for the blue law label).

To boost churchgoing, the otherwise indifferent Dutch burgomasters followed suit in New Amsterdam in 1656. The British incorporated the constraints on commerce and recreation on Sundays into the colonial laws of New York.

“There shall be no traveling, servile laboring and working, shooting, fishing, sporting, playing, horse racing, hunting, or frequenting of tippling houses,” a 1695 statute declared, “or the use of any other unlawful exercises or pastimes, by any of the inhabitants or sojourners within this province, or by any of their slaves or servants, on the Lord’s Day.”

Violators were subject to a six-shilling fine or three hours, comparable to the length of a religious service, in the stocks. (Virginia, though, provided for the death penalty for third offenders.)

Beers in the Legislative Office Building in Albany were available for consumption on Tuesday as part of a lobbying effort by the New York Brewers Association to expand Sunday hours for serving alcohol.

Dominated by Republican Protestants from upstate, New York’s Legislature fancied itself the enforcer of morality against New York City and its wards overflowing with poor immigrants who were prone to vice and happened to vote Democratic.

The state’s Penal Code sternly declared, “The first day of the week being by general consent set apart for rest and religious uses, the law prohibits the doing on that day of certain acts hereinafter specified, which are serious interruptions of the repose and religious liberty of the community.” Later, bowing to Judaism and other religions, a Sabbath violator was permitted to escape prosecution if he regularly kept “another day of the week as holy time and does not labor on that day.”

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