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Blue laws as old as the South

By
ELLEN DEBENPORT

NEW ORLEANS -- Texans can buy beer on Sundays but not diapers. A woman in Mississippi can't pick up a pair of stockings on her way to church. And in New Orleans, people can buy anything on Sundays -- but they have to go to the World's Fair or the French Quarter.

The hodgepodge of 'blue laws' that have forbidden Sunday sales in the South for more than a century gradually are being relaxed -- but some form of the tradition persists.

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State and federal judges in Louisiana last month struck down a Sunday closing law that dates to 1866, although the state is appealing the rulings. The Arkansas blue law was declared unconstitutional in 1982. Georgia lost its blue law in court action years ago.

Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi have made Sunday closings a local option.

Blue laws originated in the 13 Colonies, a product of the Puritan spirit, and were transplanted to the South with migration. A ban on Sunday sales seems to have been abandoned before American pioneers reached the Rockies, making blue laws rare in the Midwest and West.

Texas is the westernmost state that limits retail sales on Sunday, said Paul Doyle of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Minnesota's blue law stands alone in the Midwest. Anything can be sold on Sunday in Arizona, New Mexico and Pacific Coast states, Doyle said.

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Blue laws take different forms in the Sun Belt, as they do in the Northeast.

Some states let local governments decide whether stores can be open on Sundays and what can be sold, while others impose statewide bans on certain stores being open or a limit on what items can be sold.

One item frequently banned for Sunday sale is liquor, although the list of prohibited items varies considerably. For example, it's rare in the South to be able to buy clothes, hardware, furniture or cars on Sunday.

Florida is an exception.

'I'm from Tampa and I had never even heard of the law until we moved down here,' said Tammie Kuykendall, a store manager in suburban New Orleans. 'I couldn't believe it. I'm against it. A lot of people are off on Sundays and that's the only time they have to do things around the house.'

Some blue laws are hit-and-miss, such as Louisiana's. The state permits Sunday sales of anything in New Orleans at the World's Fair and in the French Quarter, but allows only liquor and food sales in the rest of the city.

Texas, Alabama and South Carolina still have blue laws on the books, but enforce them haphazardly. In Alabama, for instance, stores can open from 1 to 6 p.m. Sunday, avoiding traditional church hours.

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Oklahoma bans only the sale of liquor and cars on Sunday. Bingo is also forbidden.

Although the Christian belief that Sunday should be a day of rest was the basis for blue laws, many merchants have pressed over the years to keep the laws on the books, for financial considerations.

Some merchants said they would lose money by paying the extra labor and operating costs to stay open Sundays.

'What you're doing is dividing six days' business over seven days with the result of higher costs,' said Vernon Ewing, director of the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce Retail Merchants Bureau.

Others disagree.

The idea of Sunday closings is asinine, said Rep. Quentin Dastugue, R-Jefferson, who has fought for blue law repeal in Louisiana.

'You can buy a drink anywhere you want to buy it, but you can't buy stockings,' he said. 'You can buy a house, but you can't buy furniture to go in it. It's absolutely ridiculous.'

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