Regulations that prohibit individuals from engaging in certain private and public activities on Sunday and that impose legal sanction on violators are referred to as "blue laws," "Sunday legislation," "Sunday closing laws," or "Sunday statutes." Restricted behavior covers a broad spectrum. Through the years city ordinances and state statutes have prohibited sporting events and entertainment as well as the sale of certain items, such as alcohol, tobacco, and motor vehicles. Boxing, wrestling, horse racing, hunting, bingo, billiards, movie theaters, bowling, card playing, cockfighting, dancing, gaming, polo, and raffles have been among the banned recreational pursuits. Some states have prohibited serving civil processes (subpoenas, warrants, and so forth) on Sunday.
Derived from Sabbatarian laws existing in Europe, the first blue law in the present United States was enacted in the colony of Virginia in 1610. Two origins exist for the phrase "blue law." Some contend that it is a reference to the paper's color upon which Puritan colonial laws were printed or wrapped, but others believe it designates those who observed the laws as "true blue." In the nineteenth century the United States was predominately rural, and clerics utilized their power to influence legislators on what should constitute proper observance of Sunday. By 1931, of the forty-eight states, only California resisted the enactment of blue laws.
State legislatures have enacted general Sunday closing laws although most states permit municipalities to regulate Sunday activities. In present Oklahoma the First Territorial Legislature included such laws in the 1890 statutes. These codes were carried forward into the Oklahoma Constitution at 1907 statehood. In 1911 Oklahoma City's blue laws included the closing of pool halls and movie theaters. In August 1923 an orchestra at Medicine Park was charged with "Sabbath breaking" for performing servile labor. The town of Bethany had restrictions prohibiting cigarette, tobacco, gasoline, and candy sales in 1926. Jazz, intercollegiate athletics, and the wearing of superfluous jewelry were also condemned, and Sunday newspapers were rarely read by Bethany citizens. In 1931 Tulsa officials enforced Sunday closing laws by prosecuting owners of grocery stores, movie theaters, gas stations, and drug stores.
Since the 1950s many states have gradually repealed general Sunday closing laws, and efforts for a national Sunday observance law have failed. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of such state legislation. In 1961 the court ruled decisively in McGowan v. Maryland, stating that blue laws were legal if they did not interfere with freedom of religion and did not establish a state religion. In the 1960s and 1970s Oklahoma citizens' groups such as the Save Our Sundays Committee and the Oklahoma Retail Merchants Association launched petitions for a state "uniform day of rest and recreation" law. The proposed amendment would require retail outlets to close one day per week, either Saturday or Sunday, would ban the sale of merchandise other than specifically defined "necessities," and would provide for stronger penalties for violators. The petitions were unsuccessful.
In 1985 twenty-two states in which religious fundamentalism remained strong maintained general restrictions on Sunday behavior. Generally, the blue laws restricted commercial activity, alcohol sales, and automobile sales. These states made exceptions for works of "necessity" and "charity" and for individuals who worship on a day other than Sunday. Exceptions were also made for retail outlets that promoted Sunday as a day of relaxation, recreation, or religious observances. Legislators regulated such by imposing specific prohibitions on identified activities, writing a separate statute for each. A common restriction was alcohol sales. Some states prevented liquor stores from opening on Sundays, and other states banned the sale of hard liquor but allowed the sale of beer and wine. In 1985 Oklahoma statutes restricted boxing, wrestling, bingo, and liquor and motor vehicle sales on Sunday.
The enforcement of Sunday closing laws, either through the state court system or apprehension and prosecution of violators by state or local police, depends upon popular attitudes and debate, which constitute a mixture of religious convictions, commercial interests, and civil rights concepts. There have been three principal challenges to blue law legality: substantive, procedural, and preemptive. Substantive challenges constitute claims that blue laws violate freedom of religion and illegally restrain trade. Most litigation has involved procedural issues, in which plaintiffs argue violations of "equal protection and due process provisions, discriminatory enforcement, and impermissible delegation of legal rule-making authority" to local jurisdictions. The preemptive argument states that blue laws conflict with federal legislation.
Sunday, once called the Lord's Day, is now known as a day "in protection of the workingman." Oklahoma's statutes state that "acts deemed useless and serious interruptions of the repose and religious liberty of the community," such as trades, manufacturing, mechanical employment, horse racing, and gaming are forbidden. Public selling of commodities other than necessary foods and drinks, medicine, ice, and surgical and burial equipment, and other necessities can legally be prohibited on Sunday. In Oklahoma a fine not to exceed twenty-five dollars may be imposed on individuals for each offense.
Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), 12 December 1931, 3 August 1961, 24 March 1963, and 23 July 1970.
David N. Laband and Deborah Hendry Heinbuch, Blue Laws: The History, Economics, and Politics of Sunday-Closing Laws (Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath and Co., 1987).
Oklahoma Statutes Annotated, Crimes and Punishments, 2004 Supplement, secs. 907–911.
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Tally D. Fugate, “Blue Laws,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=BL014.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.