By Isaac Groves
Saturday Posted Sep 9, 2017 at 2:36 PM Updated at 12:02 PM
Selling Bloody Marys and cheladas at 10 a.m. on a Sunday is new, but the laws that make that controversial are not at all.
Blue laws are older than the republic, but have slowly — very, very slowly — been whittled down to the point where most just restrict alcohol sales. Over the years, though, they have prohibited a wide, and sometimes puzzling, array of activities.
The New Haven colony passed the first law prohibiting work and play on the Sabbath in 1665, which, according to legend, was printed on blue paper.
Keeping Sunday as a day of rest and worship is not uniquely American, but laws enforcing it seem to be pretty much our own. The so-called “brunch bill” is another step away from that American tradition.
One of the first known North Carolina blue laws was published in 1741, called “An act, for the better observing the Lord’s Day called Sunday … and also for the suppressing of profanities, immorality, and other vicious and enormous sins.”
The titles of our state’s general statutes haven’t honestly gotten much pithier in the past 276 years.
Among other things, the Sabbath law specifically set aside particular Sundays commemorating events like “The Day whereon the late Royall Martyr & sovereign King Charles I. was barberously murthered [sic],” or “the Anniversary of the late barbarous massacre committed by the Indians on the Inhabitants of Bath County in the year 1711,” which were “to be kept & solemnized, annually, as Days of Humiliation, with Fasting & Prayer.”
It also forbade planters, merchants or their servants to “cause or encourage or permit any Servant, or Servants, Slave or Slaves to work on the Lord’s Day.”
There was also a 10-shilling fine for using a boat on Sunday unless it was needed to get to church. Curses on Sunday came at a fine of two shillings and six pence each, and it goes on. Fines were paid to the church warden for the use of the poor.
While the laws were far reaching in North Carolina, they were not always well observed, and people were known to hunt, fish, gamble and work on Sundays even in the mid-19th century, when separating church and state wasn’t a strong cultural or legal trend.
Restrictions and enforcement
North Carolina is far from the only state with a history of at least keeping things quiet during church services. In the 1880s, the U.S. Senate held hearings on stopping the U.S. Postal Service from having carriers out on Sundays.
There was also a push by many local governments in North Carolina in the late 19th century to better enforce blue laws. In the 1880s, Asheville, according to a posting by Zoe Rhine, librarian at Pack Memorial Library in Asheville, one could not load or unload a wagon in Asheville on the Sabbath, sell or even give away intoxicating drinks, operate a barbershop or even, most chillingly, order ice cream on Sunday without first eating lunch — which could not, under the law, be cake.
In 1899, Asheville police paid a call on the Candy Kitchen to enforce the ice cream law. The proprietor cleverly solved that with an early version of the lunch combo, advertising “ham sandwiches and ice cream, you must eat the former to get the latter.”
When in 1905 the aldermen allowed the sale of soda, candy and fruit on Sundays, local ministers immediately banded together to protest. In 1934, baseball games and movies were allowed to be played in Asheville between 1 and 7 p.m. on Sundays, but not billiards, 10 pins or pool.
Through most of the 1930s, however, it was hard to find an open business on a Sunday in North Carolina. There were generally exemptions for gas stations and pharmacies, though there were things those businesses couldn’t do and sell on Sunday.
Blue laws’ heyday
North Carolina blue laws might have hit their peak in 1961 after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected challenges to blue laws in several other states. The General Assembly passed “An Act to Prohibit Certain Business Activities on Sunday,” which included selling “clothing and wearing apparel, clothing accessories, furniture, housewares, home, business or office furnishings.” It goes on to prohibit selling tools, paint, jewelry, watches, luggage and musical instruments, but allows the sale of novelties, toys, souvenirs and “articles necessary for making repairs and performing services.”
The law also gave towns and counties the power to exempt themselves from it.
The state Supreme Court repealed it the next year over its vagueness, but otherwise has tended to defer to localities and the Legislature on blue laws, especially the ones related to alcohol.
The biggest complaint about blue laws has been their inconsistency, which why most were repealed by the end of the 20th century.
According to Hersey v. Gibsonville, for example, in 1974 a local business sued the town over a local ordinance prohibiting the sale of beer or wine on Sundays except for establishments with “brown bagging” permits — legalized in 1967 — calling it unfair competition. This state’s attorney general argued that the local ordinance was constitutional, but could not overrule the state license, meaning a store couldn’t sell beer and wine on Sunday while a “brown bagging establishment” could.
There are more modern exceptions, like the 2014 state law allowing fans to buy beer at Carolina Panthers games starting at 11 a.m.
Blue laws pop up in sometimes surprising places and continue to get repealed one by one. For instance, until 2015, it was illegal to transport a permitted oversized load on a North Carolina highway on a Sunday or hunt with a gun on private land.
Remaining Sunday restrictions have a live-and-let-live quality to them.
Sunday hunting with guns is still illegal between 9:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., except on controlled hunting preserves, and within 500 yards of a church. There is no time restriction on Sunday bow hunting or — fun fact — falconry. Local governments still have the right to put some restrictions on things like Sunday hunting and, in spite of the “brunch bill,” selling alcohol on Sunday.