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U.S. Supreme Court Upholds ‘blue Laws’ Banning Trading on Sundays

May 31, 1961
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The Supreme Court of the United States ruled yesterday against the right of Jewish merchants to transact retail sales on Sundays by a new decision upholding the “blue laws” of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Maryland.

Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the controlling opinion covering four cases testing the “blue laws.” Speaking for a majority of the Supreme Court, Mr. Warren said “we hold that neither the statute’s purpose or effect is religious,” Agreeing with the Chief Justice were Justices Felix Frankfurter, John Harlan, Hugo Black, Tom Clark, and Charles E. Whittaker.

Justices William O. Douglas and Potter Stewart dissented. Justice Stewart felt that the ruling discriminated against the rights of Jews under the Constitution. Justice Stewart said in his dissent that “Pennsylvania has passed a law which compels an Orthodox Jew to choose between his religious faith and his economic survival. That is a cruel choice which I think no state can constitutionally demand.”

It was Justice Stewart’s conviction that “this is not something that can be swept under the rug and forgotten in the interest of enforced Sunday togetherness.” He said the impact of this law against Orthodox Jews “violates their constitutional right to the free exercise of their religion.” Justice William J. Brennan agreed with part of Chief Justice Warren’s ruling but not with other parts.

A basic case in the decision involved five Orthodox Jewish residents of Pennsylvania. They contended that mandatory Sunday closing violated their religious freedom. In material considered by the court, the National Retail Merchants Association said that if Sunday was “just another business day,” additional expenses would drive marginal retailers out of business and boost prices for consumers.

The effect of the ruling was expected to be one of strengthening the anti-Sunday work stand of officials of the many states which have controversial “blue laws.” However, the Chief Justice noted that such laws could be found unconstitutional in the future if they could be proved that they were being used by states “to aid religion”

Jewish organizations, with support of some Protestant groups and civil liberties organizations, have publicly opposed such laws, contending they impair constitutional guarantees of religious freedom. They also have cited the contradictions in the wide variety of permitted services and sales as between states and within states.

Among the Jewish groups which have registered opposition to such laws are the Synagogue Council of America, the National. Community Relations Advisory Council, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.

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