NYC'S BLUE LAWS
by Erica Pearson
May 26, 2003
When the Harlem store Palace Liquors opened one particular day this week, it was a moment that some New Yorkers had wanted for more than three centuries. That is because the day it opened was Sunday. New York liquor stores have never before been allowed to open on Sunday.
But at Sanchez Liquors farther uptown, the shutters remained drawn. Sunday is the day for resting, said shopkeeper Francisco Calcaño. Besides, if the store is closed, that means less liquor on the streets on a Sunday, when people are walking with their families.
The long-standing ban on Sunday liquor sales was lifted as part of the state legislatures budget package. The lawmakers reasoned that allowing liquor stores to open on Sunday (even though they will have to choose another day to close each week) will mean more alcohol sales, and more taxes and fees for the states coffers.
Some may think that this finally means an end to what are called the blue laws, which have regulated Americans moral behavior, especially what people can or cannot do on a Sunday, since the 17th century. Things certainly have changed since the time when even a Sunday baseball game was considered immoral -- and outlawed.
Indeed, the people opposed to allowing liquor to be sold on Sundays seldom even mention the word morality. Governor Pataki vetoed the Sunday liquor sales bill, but it was unlikely that he vetoed the law for moral reasons, especially considering his substitute proposal to raise funds for the city -- installing video slot machines in the citys off track betting parlors. In any case, the legislature overrode Patakis veto.
Still, blue laws have not now faded into the quaint past. There are still laws regulating peoples private lives or freedom of choice and not only ones that are outdated and unenforced. Some would say that there is at least one new one, promoted by our billionaire bachelor mayor a prohibition on smoking indoors.
HISTORY OF BLUE LAWS
New Yorks law banning liquor sales on Sunday has its origins in Puritan America and even the Roman Empire. The earliest indication that I was able to uncover about a specific law prohibiting activity on Sunday comes from the Roman emperor Constantine in the year 321, said David Laband, author of Blue Laws: The History, Economics, and Politics of Sunday Closing Laws. The law reads in part, Laband said, Let all judges, and all city people, and all tradesmen, rest upon the venerable day of the sun.
Regulations against Sunday activities were in place in King Charles the Seconds England, as well as in the seventeenth-century Puritan colonies in America. Many reference books say that the laws were called blue because they were printed on blue paper, but historians have said that the term is more likely to be derived from the use of the word blue to mean rigidly moral.
A 1695 colonial New York blue law read, Be it therefore enacted that there shall be no traveling, servile laboring and working, shooting, fishing, sporting, playing, horseracing, hunting, or frequenting of tippling houses, 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 Lords day. The punishment for any of these offenses was a fine of six shillings or three hours in the stocks.
Other colonies had even stiffer blue laws. If someone broke Virginias Sunday restrictions three times, they faced the death penalty. In colonial Boston, Captain John Kemble was arrested and put in stocks for two hours for kissing his wife on the Sunday that he returned home from three years at sea. In 1789, President George Washington was on his way from Connecticut to attend church in New York when he was charged with a blue law violation for unnecessarily walking or riding on Sunday.
In New York, regulations against Sunday activities continued into the next century, as upstate (largely Protestant) Republican lawmakers supported laws that did not make sense for the Jewish and Catholic residents of New York City. The sale of liquor on Sundays was prohibited, and both professional and amateur baseball games were against the law. By the1890s, there was a long tradition in the New York legislature of enacting legislation to enforce morality in the city, wrote Christopher Finan in Al Smith: The Happy Warrior, his biography of the1920s governor. The interference of upstate Republicans in both the administration of New York City and the social life of its citizens was deeply resented.
In 1907, New York City Democrats unsuccessfully introduced two bills in Albany to change the law prohibiting baseball on Sundays. Then-state Assemblyman Al Smith, according to Finan, spoke out against the Sunday ban on the floor of the state legislature, saying that it was better for young men to be playing baseball than be driven to places where they play Waltz Me Around Again, Willie.
In 1917, the New York Giants and Cincinnatti Reds played the first Sunday major league baseball game at the Polo Grounds. The managers of both teams were arrested for violating the blue laws. Sunday games became legal in New York two years later, but the bar on Sunday liquor sales became an all out ban during prohibition. A new law banning Sunday sales was drafted at the end of the prohibition era, and survived until this month.
LIQUOR STORES ON SUNDAY
The new law doesnt do away with the states blue laws completely. New Yorks liquor stores may be able to open on Sundays, but will have to close one other day a week. Mark Anderson, deputy commissioner of the New York State Liquor Authority, said that in order to enforce the one-day-a-week closing, he expects that each store will need to include the day that they will close each week in their license. The law will sunset in five years, so Sunday sales may be banned again. It also limits the number of state liquor licenses to the ones currently in place. Grocery stores are still not allowed to sell wine, and can only sell beer on Sundays after noon.
Liquor store groups have lobbied on both sides of the issue. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, which lobbied hard for a lift of the Sunday ban in New York, sponsored a study finding that Sunday openings could bring in an extra $26.7 million a year in taxes and fees for New York State, because Sunday has become a big shopping day. This is all about choices, said Lisa Hawkins from the Distilled Spirits Council, who once told Business Review that she should have the right to have margaritas with my fajitas on Sunday night.
Small owner-run liquor stores have often campaigned to keep Sunday closings, saying that they dont have the staff to open every day, but would be forced to open in order to compete with larger stores.
The new law answers some of their concerns, by mandating that all stores close at least one day a week. Francisco Maracallo, the manager of the Washington Heights store Sandy Liquor, is looking forward to the good sales that he thinks Sunday will bring, and hopes to work out a plan with other liquor stores in the neighborhood, so that each one closes on a different day.
Religious groups have said that not only does banning liquor sales on Sunday limit alcohol abuse, it is a way to preserve the moral basis of the country. It is important that we control alcoholic beverages, Reverend Lou Shelton of the Traditional Values Coalition said on CNN after the bans were lifted in New York and Delaware. How many millions of Americans desperately have to now attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting because alcohol is an addiction in their life? And so, I think if you dont have alcohol one day a week, it gives a message.
America was built upon a moral basis, Shelton added. And if you erode the moral basis our founding father, George Washington, said
Whose morality? liberal radio host Nancy Skinner cut in. Im Catholic. We have no problems against drinking on the Sabbath, okay? So you are imposing your morality on me.
Many have argued that the blue laws do unfairly impose a Protestant moral code on people of other religions. Jewish liquor store owners who keep Saturday Sabbath were, under the Sunday ban, required to be shuttered for the entire weekend. The Blue Laws were established during a time when a Christian government passed laws according to Christian beliefs. There is no other reason for Sunday to have been declared the official Sabbath. As a Jew, I have felt it discriminatory that I cannot purchase alcohol on Sunday, which is not my Sabbath day, wrote David Janower to the Albany Times Union. What if Passover were to fall on a Sunday, and we were without our Manischewitz?
David Laband, who wrote a book on the history of blue laws, said that he finds the laws to be an unwarranted incursion by the state into individuals freedom of choice. Once in place, the laws can be very difficult to dismantle, said Laband. Some of these groups are very media-savvy at painting politicians as pandering to the vices of the city. It can be very difficult to undo some of this regulatory apparatus once it is in place.
GAMBLING AND STATE COFFERS
Patakis plan for helping budget-crunched New York City involves taxing an activity that was once illegal in the city: gambling. The governor suggested installing as many as 4,500 video slot machines, which can be taxed at extremely high rates, to off track betting parlors in the city.
Patakis suggestion is just the latest plan to tax peoples attempts to strike it rich in order to fill state or city coffers. While non-Indian casinos are still illegal in the empire state, New York State has been loosening gambling restrictions and using taxes on betting to raise revenue since the 1930s. Gambling in the city was legal until the 1830s, when New Yorks state legislature first banned lotteries. The legislature also outlawed gambling halls and other public gambling places in the 1840s, but people with ties to politicians or money to bribe the police gambled openly in the city. Soon after the Civil War, the boxer John Morrissey created the citys first off track betting system, where results from the Saratoga tracks were telegraphed into a city poolroom.
In 1939, track betting became legal, and taxes on betting brought in revenues for the state. New York City voters approved off track betting parlors in a 1963 referendum, and New York introduced a state lottery in 1966. The Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that Native Americans have the right to run casinos, and during the 1990s tribes across the country opened gambling houses while much of the nation relaxed gambling restrictions. Now 47 states have some legalized gambling.
As Pataki made plans for the state to collect from new slot machines, William Bennett, author of The Book of Virtues and often called the nations morality czar, was exposed as a compulsive gambler. The founder of the conservative Heritage Foundation admitted that he had lost $8 million playing slot machines, the very form of gambling that Pataki has proposed.
Slot machines are said to be one of the most addictive forms of gambling, and often become a dangerous habit for people with much less extra cash to put on the line than the millionaire morality czar. After hearing Patakis proposal, Senator David Paterson of Harlem told the New York Times that the governor was imposing a taxi on the addicted.
The National Gambling Impact Study Commission found in 1999 that when gambling is promoted as the only way to get ahead, and in particular, targets those who do not have leisure dollars to spend, the economic and social, indeed, the moral fabric of our nation is damaged.
But groups like the New York Gambling Association cite studies finding that there is no direct link between gambling and crime, and say that the gambling industry can create jobs and bring in important revenue to state and local governments.
DANCING, SMOKING AND OTHER VICES
While some laws are falling by the wayside, New York City is passing new laws that govern peoples habits, and reviving old ones that had gone unenforced for years. Mayor Michael Bloombergs ban on smoking in bars and restaurants began in March. Although the mayor has repeated that the law does not legislate morality, and is instead about workers rights to not breathe second hand smoke, some see the law as meddling with peoples freedoms. The land of the free is a bossy country, where myriad federal, state and local authorities spend a great deal of time passing interfering little laws for peoples supposed good, and then putting up didactic notices to enforce them, wrote Londons Guardian newspaper last year, going on to comment that Bloombergs smoking ban was a successor to the citys 1904 Sullivan Law, which prohibited women from smoking in public.
In the 1990s, the Giuliani administration used zoning laws to shut down city sex clubs, x-rated video stores and topless bars, especially in Times Square, and began enforcing a 1926 law licensing dancing in order to close clubs that have caused noise complaints or were known for drug use. Dancing is illegal in bars or clubs that do not have a cabaret license. Club owners and clubbers have complained that the city shouldnt use dancing to regulate clubs safety or noise levels. This city telling me where I can shake my rear end is ridiculous, Manhattanite Kylie Ferguson wrote in a letter to the Village Voice, I feel like running around an abandoned warehouse like Kevin Bacon to the song Footloose.
While states are now overturning gambling and alcohol sales laws in hopes of extra revenue from taxes, the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way and other groups have long been challenging the constitutionality of laws that restrict peoples private lives. While some laws have been overturned, others remain standing.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld in a 1961 case called McGowan v. Maryland that state legislatures have the right to enact blue laws, as long as the laws have a secular purpose. The justices found that observing Sunday as a day of rest is not in and of itself religious.
Every state once had an anti-sodomy law, but now only 13 still have them on the books. New Yorks law was ruled unconstitutional in 1980 and formally repealed in 2000. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Georgias sodomy law in the 1980s, and is currently deciding a Texas sodomy law case. The court is expected to give its decision in June.
Laws like this violate the fundamental interest of every American to their own personal liberty, said Judith E. Schaeffer, deputy legal director of the People for the American Way foundation. There is no legitimate state interest for these laws, none what so ever.
While she personally finds anti-sodomy laws offensive, Kimberly Hendrickson, a researcher at the American Enterprise Institutes federalism project, argues that morals laws are good for democracy, and let some states set the laws that reflect the collective interests of their residents. We live in a society now that is erring on the side of extensive individual rights. I think a slight pull back in the opposite direction is a good idea.
Hendrickson suggests that people should just move to places that have laws that make them the most comfortable.
Some people are taking her advice. I'm thinking of leaving New York for a city that's free and tolerant and treats me like an adult, wrote musician Joe Jackson about the smoking ban in the New York Times last week. London is looking pretty good. Or Paris, or Moscow
Institutes Federalism Project
People for the American Way
National Gambling Impact Study Commission
New York Gambling Association
National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling
Distilled Spirits Council
New York State Liquor Authority
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