On Blue Laws

Here is something interesting from a book I’m reviewing now by Professor Greg Weiner, The Political Constitution: The Case Against Judicial Supremacy, which takes Justice Felix Frankfurter’s later views of constitutional jurisprudence as in some respects a model for today. Here, Weiner discusses Frankfurter’s view of the Blue Laws, which forbade a wide range of commercial activities on Sunday in order to recognize the sabbath day for Christians, in a famous case called McGowan v. Maryland (1961). The Court upheld these laws for a rather peculiar reason: that “the record is barren” of reasons to *disprove* that forbidding the sales of certain products on Sunday does not contribute to the rationalized well-being of the citizenry.

Justice Frankfurter concurred. Here is a bit from the book with some material from the Frankfurter opinion quoted:

The effect of the law was to set Sundays apart as ‘a day of rest not merely in a physical, hygienic sense, but in the sense of a recurrent time in the cycle of human activity when the rhythms of existence changed, a day of particular associations which came to have their own autonomous values for life.’ Perhaps most important, rather than seeing the case as one pitting lone objectors against the state, Frankfurter recognized the individual’s situation in the context of a political community whose ‘spirit…expresses in goodly measure the heritage which links it to its past’ and which could reasonably decide to create an ‘atmosphere of general repose’ that would be disrupted by exempting individuals from the law.

In other words, the majority of the community was entitled to impose regulations that created what it regarded as conditions for living a good life, which included leisure, community interaction, and, yes, a particular convenience for members of the dominant religion….The religious heritage of blue laws was part of the traditions of a community, which could not regard itself as existing simply in the here and now. (97-98)

I’ll have more to say about the book, and claims like the one above, soon.

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