Loud commercials, antenna balloons and those weird fan-inflated arm wavers. Indiana County’s forty auto dealerships will do just about anything to get your attention and your business. So why won’t they sell you a car on Sunday?
Because it’s a crime.
The law that makes it so is called the Act of April 22, 1794, which is short for its real name, “An Act for the Prevention of Vice and Immorality and of Unlawful Gaming, and to Restrain Disorderly Sports and Dissipation.” You probably know it as the Blue Law.
Like its siblings in most other American states (as well as Canada and several European countries), Pennsylvania’s Blue Law had public observance of the Sabbath as its original purpose. It takes just three sentences to cover a wide range of activities in surprising detail: things forbidden and the penalty for doing them, exceptions to the rule, and a statute of limitations. In a nutshell, it forbids us to “perform any employment or business whatsoever on the Lord’s day, commonly called Sunday (works of necessity and charity only excepted)” or to practice any “game, hunting, shooting, sport or diversion whatsoever on the same day.” Simple, right? But those words have been argued over in more detail, for a longer time and with greater passion than any other in our legislative and judicial history. It’s enough to make a lawyer drool.
The range of things to which the Act has been applied over the years is immense and sometimes quizzical. From the Penal Code of Pennsylvania, here’s a sample of 19th century rulings that cited the Act in their support. On Sunday:
* Barbers may shave themselves but not others.
* The trolley driver whose car makes noise shall be subject to arrest.
* Bakers may not sell ice cream without also providing entertainment.
* Steamboat may be operated as ferries but not as excursion boats.
* Killing coyotes and crows is exempt from the ban on hunting.
* Even when otherwise permitted by law, dueling is forbidden.
Curiously for a state that led the fight for religious freedom in 1776, the Act raised little objection for the first few decades. Perhaps the reason can be found in its time and place of birth. The Whiskey Rebellion, centered right here in southwest Pennsylvania, reached its peak the same year the Act was passed; it may be that “high spirits and freethinkers” were not tolerated while those who fought that insurrection still lived. In any case, the first legal challenges were not about what the Act prohibited or even why, but when. In Commonwealth v. Wolf (1817)* and other cases, Jews and Seventh Day Adventists asserted that the Act’s designation of Sunday as the Lord’s Day amounted to selective proscription of their faiths’ Saturday Sabbath and a five-day limit to their business week. The relief that was eventually granted came not from the courts but the General Assembly, after several attempts over many decades.
Support for Pennsylvania’s Blue Law ebbed and flowed over time, often reflecting social changes not related to the law itself. The most intense of these periods was 1890-1915, during the Third Great Awakening and the closing days of the Industrial Revolution. Interests-in-common made for strange bedfellows: temperance workers saw in the Act an ally against then-rampant alcoholism and domestic violence, while nascent labor unions welcomed its help reducing the 70-80 hour work week and employers’ control over workers’ lives.
During the height of the pro-Sabbath cycle in the early 1900s, Indiana County outdid most of the state in its zeal for enforcement, with the support of churches, citizens’ groups and even the press. Railing against the McNichol Bill’s proposed dilution of Sabbath laws, the Gazette urged readers to demand their legislators oppose “establishing the wicked ‘Continental’ or European Sunday in Pennsylvania.” And in December 1907 alone, seventy merchants, miners and railroad employees were arrested for violating the Act in towns from Plumville to Josephine “on information of the Indiana County Sabbath Observance Association.”
The national Sabbath Observance Association chose Pittsburgh as its 1908 convention site because southwest Pennsylvania was ground zero in the battle over U.S. Blue Laws. The Indiana County chapter had as its field agent one Doctor James Sharp, whose task it was to set up surveillance on suspected violators, collect evidence and witnesses, then “bring information” (press charges) against those caught working or doing business on Sunday. He was ruthlessly efficient, accounting for hundreds of convictions before his death in 1909; coal companies and railroads that had hitherto ignored the Act stopped requiring seven-day work weeks of their employees, and merchants dreaded running afoul of our county’s Sabbath vigilante.
By 1929, more than 100 attempts to repeal or amend the original Act had failed…
But times were already changing. America after World War One was a different place, and the Sabbath Observance Association less Doctor Sharp had a progressively smaller voice in Indiana County. Both economic hardship and prosperity dealt further setbacks to Blue Law supporters in the decades that followed: with unemployment near 30%, what Depression-era worker could say no to Sundays? And how many businessmen could afford to reject one-seventh of all opportunities in the postwar boom? In between, WWII persuaded us that enforceable uniformity was worth fighting against, not for.
In the meantime, non-employment exceptions were slowly added, most notably the 1933 bill leaving Sunday sports to the discretion of local electorates. (Indiana County voters chose to continue the ban here by a 2-to-1 margin.) Once 1938’s Fair Labor Standards Act made the forty-hour week national law and state liquor control debuted, the alliance that had supported the Act dissolved for want of common cause. And in 1959, the first significant modification of the Act was at last signed into law.
Not that the issue is settled, even now! Failure of subsequent attempts to repeal the Act altogether has demonstrated Pennsylvanians’ support for at least some degree of public Sabbath-keeping, and our Supreme Court has consistently affirmed the Act’s constitutionality. On the other hand, recent decades have seen moratoria on Blue Law prosecutions; the day after the first of these in 1976, the Gazette carried ads by Indiana County merchants announcing Sunday hours . . . just two years after police had closed Punxsutawney’s Jamesway Department Store for attempting Sunday sales. Hunting, betting, and yes, even car sales are still limited to Monday through Saturday, and the debate remains a vigorous one on most remaining provisions of the Act. May it ever be so; may we never forget that both consent and dissent ensure Pennsylvania’s “Virtue, Liberty, and Independence.”