Could Sabbath closure laws make a comeback?

Here’s why some political commentators and legal scholars are tweeting their support for taking a Sabbath

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Americans were overworked and tightly wound. In the past two years, the situation’s only gotten worse.

Pandemic-related stress and a widespread desire for more time to rest are among the factors fueling the “Great Resignation.” They also help explain why some political commentators and legal scholars spent the weekend debating the Sabbath.

The conversation began with a tweet from Adrian Vermeule, a law professor at Harvard University. He highlighted the reinstatement of Sabbath laws as one of several policy goals that unites “post-liberals,” a group of conservatives who say they’re focused on promoting the common good.

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Sabbath laws, which are also known as blue laws, were once a major part of American life. Although they came in a variety of forms, the policies had a shared purpose: limiting certain commercial activities to six days per week.

In other words, blue laws forced both business owners and the people they served to take a day of rest. And under past policies, that day was almost always Sunday.

“Until the last few decades, Sabbath laws ... effectively shut down Sunday commerce in much of the country,” Joel Mathis noted in a Monday column for The Week.

Blue laws’ association with the Christian Sabbath helps explain why part of the debate surrounding Vermeule’s tweet centered on religious discrimination. Legal experts pointed out that forced closures on Sunday disproportionately harm some people of faith, including Jews who observe the Sabbath from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.

Similar religious freedom concerns fueled a legal challenge to blue laws that the Supreme Court heard in the early 1960s. Representatives of a discount store in Maryland alleged that the state’s Sunday closure policies violated the Constitution’s free exercise and establishment clauses.

In May 1961, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that Maryland’s Sabbath laws didn’t violate the First Amendment. The justices acknowledged that the restrictions had their roots in Christian practice, but said they served important secular purposes, including the promotion of public health, Oyez reported.

Although the ruling was significant, it did not guard against Sunday laws’ demise. Soon after the Supreme Court used secular arguments to rule in favor of blue laws, policymakers across the country began using secular arguments to justify their repeal.

In 2019, officials in North Dakota offered by-then familiar arguments to explain their support for overturning the nation’s last statewide ban on Sunday trading. They said the move would promote personal freedom and help business owners by boosting revenue.

“Who but a few scolds could complain?,” asked Sohrab Ahmari in a recent Wall Street Journal column about the fall of Sabbath laws. “We are encouraged to pursue lives of constant action and purpose, and we do.”

What this looks like in practice is that few Americans prioritize taking time to rest. And that even those who do often fail, whether because of their kids’ demanding extracurricular schedules, their smartphones’ incessant beeping or countless other obstacles.

“Rest is hard to come by these days,” argued Mathis in The Week, noting that pandemic-related developments have deepened this already common problem.

“For many Americans, the pandemic has given rise to remote work that has blurred the divisions between home and labor, while working-class folks are often subject to ‘just-in-time’ scheduling that makes home life difficult to sustain,” he wrote.

Frustration with the status quo fueled engagement with Vermeule’s tweet. People from across the political and religious spectrum generally agreed that Americans could benefit from being forced to take at least one day off each week.

“If the right and left can agree on anything these days, maybe it’s that workers should get a day off now and then,” wrote Mathis for The Week.

However, consensus would likely fall apart quickly if conservatives insisted on reinstating blue laws in their old form. It would be better to mandate rest on a day that doesn’t raise religious freedom concerns, tweeted Jeet Heer, a columnist for The Nation.

“Elevator pitch: a secular Sabbath that starts on Thursday evening. This will create a four-day work week and also preserve religious neutrality,” he said.

Workers may love this idea, but any sort of one-size-fits-all closure policy would cause problems, as many respondents to Heer’s tweet pointed out. For example, Larry Yudelson, the editorial director for a Jewish press, noted that Jews would struggle to prepare for their religious Sabbath if stores were closed during the day on Fridays.

The best solution to burnout, at least in the short term, might be for individual Americans to find ways to take a rest on their own terms. Some Christian business owners, including the family behind Chick-fil-A, already do this by voluntarily closing up shop on Sundays. Other Americans observe a digital Sabbath by turning off the notifications on their phones.

“Even just leaving your phone behind when you get lunch is a step in the right direction,” reported The New York Times in a 2019 article on reducing stress.