Bergen County’s blue laws date back three centuries

Blue laws’ origins in the U.S. can be traced back to 1704 and then 1798 with the passage of the Act to Suppress Vice and Immorality. The immorality in question is defined by the standards of seventeenth-century Puritans who wanted to keep Sunday as a day of rest and piety.

If you’re wondering if this is a violation of the separation of church and state, you are not alone. Historically, blue laws have been challenged several times as violations of the First Amendment by forcing a religious rule on the general public.

“I can’t go to the mall, I can’t go shopping, I can’t go to Guitar Center.”

– Claudia Eligur

The most notable incident culminated in the Supreme Court case McGowan v. Maryland. In 1961 the Supreme Court ruled that blue laws were constitutional. A summary of their rationale is available through Oyez, a free online law project.

“Sunday closing laws started out to facilitate church attendance in colonial America; however, the present Maryland laws are based on secular rather than religious state interests. The laws are to improve the ‘health, safety, recreation, and general well-being’ of citizens. The present purpose of the laws is to provide a uniform day of rest for all.”

This ruling remains controversial to this day, and I am one of the people who remain opposed. Although blue laws have gradually been phased out in most areas, a few places use the Supreme Court’s logic to hold tight to the tradition.

Bergen County is beautiful and welcoming, but its blue laws are not. Photo courtesy of Andre Carrotflower, Wikipedia.

In 1959, each NJ county was given the ability to vote on whether or not blue laws would still be practiced there. By 1985, every county except Bergen had let them go.

The current iteration is outlined in NJ Revised Statute § 40A:64-1. The sale of “clothing or wearing apparel, building and lumber supply materials, furniture, home or business or office furnishings, household, business or office appliances, except as works of necessity and charity” on a Sunday can incur a fine of $250 for the first offense. If offenses repeat, the fine can rise to up to nearly $5,000 and land the seller in prison for a period between 30 days and six months.

Although this legislation is less restrictive than its predecessor — which fined not only certain kinds of commerce, but also traveling more than 20 miles, swearing and various forms of amusement — it is still unnecessary and rather absurd. Many Bergen County residents agree.

“Growing up, my parents would work all week, and we didn’t get to do much because they were always working. Sunday is the one day we have to have family time, but we can’t go anywhere,” Claudia Eligur said, a senior music major and a lifelong Bergen County resident. Her resentment has only grown over the years.

“For me as a college student living in Bergen County, Sunday is my only day to chill. I have no days throughout the week to do anything for my leisure. I can’t go to the mall, I can’t go shopping, I can’t go to Guitar Center,” Eligur said.

Like her, many students who live on campus at Ramapo have to travel out of Bergen County for any errands or leisure activities they want to accomplish on a Sunday. Leaving blue laws in the past would make these tasks more convenient for part-time and full-time residents.

It also would benefit the county to lift these laws. The money spent both on Sunday purchases and on the extra gas used to obtain them could be supporting Bergen’s economy if not for the insistence of upholding a 300-year-old view on morality.

Featured photo courtesy of Stephdurante, Wikipedia