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Blue laws won't fade away

Sunday restrictions have tempered state for almost 320 years

Sunday, February 18, 2001

By John M.R. Bull, Post-Gazette Harrisburg Correspondent

HARRISBURG -- Keeping restaurants with liquor licenses closed until 7 a.m. on Sundays, even when people are gathering to watch concrete stadiums blow up, isn't the only strange law on the books in Pennsylvania.

Several ghosts of the lamented "blue laws" still haunt the state's criminal code.

Fishing is legal on Sundays. Hunting is not.

Buying a new or used car from an auto dealer on Sundays is against the law. Yes, you can test drive or window shop at those weekend car expos, but you can't legally buy or even negotiate a purchase.

Betting on horse races on Sunday is illegal and can get you fined.

But not all gamblers are bothered by the blues. Buying a state lottery ticket on Sunday is legal and even actively encouraged by the state.

Blue laws originated to regulate industry, shopping and other behaviors on Sundays. The restrictions were supposed to be for the good of everyone's morals. Blue laws were supposed to force the citizenry to observe the Lord's day quietly, at home.

The first of the blue laws in Pennsylvania was enacted in 1682, back when it was a colony of the British Empire. The general prohibition was against working or having fun on Sundays.

"Whoever does or performs any worldly employment or business whatsoever on the Lord's day, commonly called Sunday, works of necessity and charity only exempted, or uses or practices any game, hunting, shooting, sport or diversion whatsoever on the same day not authorized by law" is guilty, the law stated.

It went on the books just a year after William Penn established a government in what would become Pennsylvania.

The ban carried over when Pennsylvania became a state in 1787. The Pennsylvania Legislature re-enacted the law almost verbatim in 1939.

It wasn't until 1978 that the state Supreme Court ruled that the blue laws were unconstitutional, but on rather strange grounds. The Legislature, the court decided, had the perfect right to pass laws regulating behavior on Sundays, including the 1935 restriction on showing movies and the 1939 ban on playing pool.

But throughout the years, so many blue laws were enacted, and so many exceptions made in such a willy-nilly fashion, that they had neither rhyme nor reason and, therefore, discriminated against some people, the court ruled.

For example, noted one of the justices, what sense was there to allow stores that sold antique rugs to open on Sundays, but not stores that sold new rugs?

Perhaps a computer could "discover some thread of rationality" in what was prohibited and what was not, the court suggested. If the Legislature wanted to rewrite and re-enact blue laws so they made sense, that would be fine, but until then, they could not be enforced, the justices decided.

In fact, the Legislature did re-enact some of them.

The hubbub was started by a court case that originated in O'Hara when the township tried to fine a grocery for opening on Sundays.

On Mount Washington 33 years later, another type of Sunday laws created controversy again.

Liquor-control agents investigated some Mount Washington restaurants for opening before 7 a.m. last Sunday to let revelers watch the implosion of Three Rivers Stadium. The view was great. The crowd was happy. The restaurants were in violation of law passed after Prohibition ended in 1933. Some provisions of those rules are akin to blue laws.

Only Utah has as strange a collection of liquor rules and regulations as Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania owns the liquor stores, and won't open them on Sundays for the sake of everyone's morals. Sales of alcohol on Sundays is prohibited throughout the state, as a rule, unless a restaurant has a Sunday permit to sell alcohol. If so, alcohol can't be sold until 11 a.m.

But restaurant doors can't open until 7 a.m. A warning is in store for the offending restaurants on Mount Washington.

Technically, the old blue laws remain on the books. They were not repealed. Lawmakers get credit for enacting laws, not deleting them. And repealing them could anger conservative constituents, which lawmakers don't want to do if they don't have to. Because they don't have to repeal the blue laws, they didn't.

The blue laws remain on the books, but are considered unenforceable by court decree.

Throughout the years, various Sunday prohibitions crept back onto the books.

Less than a year after the court ruling, the Legislature felt obliged to re-enact the 1957 ban on selling new or used cars from auto dealerships on Sundays. Trailers, too. The kind you hook up to a vehicle, not a double-wide.

The ban remains in place to this day. Dealerships prefer it that way.

"It's the general consensus they don't mind," said Nathan Duhovis, executive director of the Pennsylvania Independent Auto Dealers Association. "Frankly, if anyone challenged it, they'd probably win."

Dealership owners like the law because it gives them a day off, he said.

If the law allowed car sales on Sunday, some dealership would open on Sundays and that would bring pressure on others to open to remain competitive, Duhovis said. This way, no one is able to sell, so there is no fear of losing customers to anyone else on Sundays.

Fishing is allowed on Sundays. Hunting is not.

The fishing ban was repealed decades ago, with only one lingering piece of silliness remaining on the books.

There is a specific law banning fishing on private property without the owner's consent, and it allows property owners to post "No Fishing on Sunday Without Permission" signs. It is also illegal to fish -- or do anything else --on private property on any day of the week without the owner's permission.

The signs are a curio. The state gives them out on request. The Amish and Mennonites ask for them more than anyone else, on religious grounds.

The war over Sunday hunting continues, now 319 years and running.

Currently, Sunday hunting is prohibited with a few exceptions. Foxes, coyotes and in some cases crows can be shot on Sundays. Those critters annoy farmers, who have a lobby with muscle in Harrisburg.

Some hunters want to be allowed to hunt on Sundays. Others do not. They appear to be about evenly split, said Jerry Feaser, state Fish and Game Commission spokesman.

And many property owners who participate in a state program to open their lands for hunting say they would withdraw permission if Sunday hunting were allowed, Feaser said.

A bill to allow Sunday hunting was introduced last year. Hearings were held. Outrage was voiced.

"Much of it is founded in pure religious beliefs, that we just shouldn't do it on Sunday. Sunday should be a day of rest," said state Rep. Dan Surra, R-Elk. "Pennsylvania is very conservative and very resistant to change."

The bill died but may be resurrected for more discussion.

To peruse the state code in the Internet, try www.pacode.com/about/about.html



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