Bloody Marys at 10 a.m. on Sunday add to long erosion of state’s blue laws
By SAM ROBERTS The New York Times
This article was published June 19, 2016 at 3:22 a.m.
NEW YORK -- 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 Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have agreed to, 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 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 bolster 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 6-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.)
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."
What better way to temper behavior than to deprive the mob of the devil's brew -- leaving no alternative on hot summer Sundays but "warm Croton water," as William Steinway, the piano magnate, complained on behalf of his fellow German-Americans.
But from the beginning, blue laws were honored more in the breach than the observance.
Even Constantine's were promulgated with an exception for countrymen tending to agriculture. If farmers were the first special interests to successfully lobby for an exemption, popular cafes serving brunch and bars broadcasting soccer from abroad on Sunday mornings are merely the latest.
In 1907, Assemblyman Alfred Smith of Manhattan, seeking to legalize Sunday baseball, argued that it was more ennobling for young men to watch a game at an open-air ballpark than to "be driven to places where they play 'Waltz Me Around Again, Willie.'"
By 1919, baseball was permitted by local option. In 1937, bowling was allowed. In 1949, the Legislature decriminalized football, basketball and soccer after 2 p.m. In 1952, bans on stock car racing, circuses, hunting and golf were lifted. In 1973, Sunday horse racing was legalized.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Sunday closing laws in principle, ruling that a common day of rest could be considered in the public interest. But while labor unions and mom-and-pop retail stores opposed Sunday openings, big chain stores and customers seemed amenable. (Bergen County, N.J., remains the sole major holdout in the country.)
Absent specific complaints, in 1971 the New York City police stopped enforcing the blue laws altogether. The number of summonses plunged from 25,000 in 1970 to fewer than 2,000 in 1972.
Now that state lawmakers have begun legalizing gambling, justifying blue laws as an inducement to churchgoing has become more difficult. Everyone agrees that New Yorkers deserve a rest on Sunday, but, as Mayor Fiorello La Guardia said, they could define it for themselves. He advocated that they enjoy the freedom "to attend church if they so desire and to occupy themselves during the remainder of the day in the lawful recreation best suited to afford them the most complete rest possible."
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Print Headline: New deal spices up day of rest in N.Y.