By Steve Pomper
A little change of pace, today to discuss something I’ve always found strange but interesting. I’ve also wondered what it was like for the cops who had to enforce these blue laws. These, often whacky, laws convey to modern Americans both the transient and lingering nature of religious, cultural, and politically partisan laws.
Blue laws were not about the enduring laws prohibiting of obviously uncivilized acts such as murder, rape, fraud, and theft but those laws prohibiting other heinous offenses such as herding sheep up Union Street on Sundays, as is technically against the law in my hometown.
I grew up in Massachusetts, one of the earliest British colonies and later American states. In fact, the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, written by John Adams, is the oldest written constitution continually in effect in the nation—actually, in the world.
Massachusetts still has laws on the books, many of which are over 340 years old. Not a math whiz here, but the United States of America is only, um… about… some 244 years old—or so. So, that’s like a hundred years difference, give or take, right? Meaning, America still has laws on the books that were in effect while we were colonial subjects within the British Empire.
So, laws are on the books from long before Massachusetts joined in union with the other 12 original colonies/states. However, though technically still on the books, many blue laws are either no longer enforced, or courts have ruled their enforcement unconstitutional.
But they remain on the books. Why? Well, according to Pittsburgh’s Old Post-Gazette, and a reason that makes sense to me as a small government guy, “Lawmakers get credit for enacting laws, not deleting them.” So, in essence, deleting them gives politicians less time to create more laws that people will see as blue laws a hundred years from now.
Blue laws were based on some unusual premises, often mixing religion and government, primarily trying to get folks to observe the Sunday Sabbath. Ironic when you consider many colonists escaped Europe because of religious persecution. Some of these laws have proven quite tenacious. For instance, Massachusetts still enforces some lingering alcoholic beverage sales restrictions.
In Mass., you can only sell beer and wine in convenience and grocery stores from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday. On Sunday, you may not sell alcohol before noon. You may not sell alcohol on election day while the polls are open. Happy hours are illegal. Alcohol retailers may not pass along bulk discounts to their customers. And nine Massachusetts towns are dry, prohibiting the sale of alcohol entirely.
Here are just a few examples of blue laws still hanging around in the Bay State and one from the Keystone State.
From Boston.com, In Mass. you may not:
- Kiss in public.
- Check into a hotel under a name other than your own. (Cher and Madonna, should be careful when performing in Boston).
- As an adult, swear at players or officials at a sporting event. You may do so, if you are under 16 (so, if you have some invectives caught in your throat, get with your young teens before the game starts and go over some signals).
- “Be ‘idle’ like ‘common coasters, unprofitable fowlers, and tobacco takers.’” (I’ll admit it: I am at a complete loss as to how to paraphrase this blue law).
- Manufacture or sell candy with more than one percent alcohol (well, duh!).
- Watch or play in an unlicensed sporting event on a Sunday—but only if you pay for it (Bruins, Celts, and Sox are licensed, so I’m good).
- Give beer to hospital patients (I wonder if it’s okay to sell it to them?).
- Wear bone lace, gold or silver buttons, silk scarves, or hoods worth more than “200 pounds” (Worth 199 or less pounds? Go for it!).
- Scare pigeons away from someone else’s property (you may only terrify pigeons from your own yard).
According to onlyinyourstate.com, other Massachusetts “blue laws” include:
- Mourners can’t eat more than three sandwiches at a wake (anything more would be rude).
- No snoring unless your bedroom window is closed and locked (my wife would agree with this one).
- Can’t wear a goatee in public unless you pay for a special license (full beard okay?).
VP Joe Biden and Mayor Bloomberg won’t like this one, which is not a prohibition but a mandate:
- On Sundays, all men must carry a rifle to church (though armed with a pistol, an armed man recently prevented a bloodbath at a Texas church).
- No one may cross Boston Common without carrying a shotgun—because of bears (try that one today).
- So, you must carry a shotgun across Boston Common, but don’t you dare play the fiddle, which is illegal in Boston (Nero would not be welcome in this city).
- On Sundays, you may engage in a “duel to the death on the common,” as long as the governor is there (there was no mention of dueling on other days of the week).
- And one I had to add from Pennsylvania. Apparently, their blue laws allow a person to sell antique rugs on Sundays but not new rugs.
- Finally, no matter what else you do or don’t do in Massachusetts, you may never—and I do mean never—use tomatoes when making clam chowder (Finally, a blue law that makes perfect sense—Manhattan clam chowder sucks!).
Though done in fun, this article points out what happens when people decide to pass laws they feel are “good ideas.” Not every good idea makes a good law. For example, there are people out there that would like to make stuff illegal because they don’t like it or mandatory because they do. They want you to live as they do because they know better.
Anyway, it’s best we think carefully about the laws we pass and consider the consequences. If nothing else, don’t we owe it to future generations? So, they’re not dealing with our stupid laws in the year 2359 (more math) and asking themselves, what the hell were those people thinking?