Blue Laws: Easing Up on Sunday Liquor Sales

Throwing out Prohibition-era laws means more revenue for states.

Employee Eli Hughes stocks bottles of wine in the Applejack Liquor Store in the west Denver suburb of Wheat Ridge, Colo., Feb. 13, 2008.

Employee Eli Hughes stocks bottles of wine in the Applejack Liquor Store in Wheat Ridge, Colorado.

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Cheri Jahn did something last weekend that she had never done before. On her way to a Sunday barbecue in Denver, Jahn, a Democratic representative in the Colorado General Assembly, stopped at a local liquor store, bought a six-pack of Fat Tire beer, and then drove the rest of the way to the party. Her contribution to the gathering was cheerfully imbibed by a group of consenting adults, most of whom had also stopped and purchased beer and wine on a Sunday for the first time. "It was really fun," says Jahn, the cosponsor of a new law that ended a state ban on Sunday alcohol sales this month. "Everyone I talked to said we should have done this a long time ago."

Why they didn't is a question that has baffled political experts for decades. Seventy-five years after Franklin Roosevelt oversaw the repeal of the 18th Amendment, many state lawmakers across the country still find themselves stumbling over the last vestiges of Prohibition. Since 2002, 13 states, including Colorado, have repealed "blue laws" restricting liquor sales on Sundays, while 15 others, from Montana to Georgia, still have the laws on the books. These Sunday liquor-sale bans, which vary in scope from state to state, are not always popular, and they certainly aren't convenient—but they have been remarkably slow to disappear. "It's the most ridiculous thing," says Jahn, who has also joined a debate in Colorado over whether to repeal the state's last "blue law," which bans Sunday car sales. "Why in the world should the government tell us whether we can be open or closed on Sunday?"

There was a time when the answer to that question wasn't so obvious. Blue laws restricting behavior on Sundays arrived with the first Puritan colonists in the 17th century, who outlawed drunkenness and public excess on what they considered a day of worship. The temperance movement briefly expanded the scope of the bans—which some historians believe drew their name from the colored paper the first Connecticut laws were printed on—but when Prohibition was repealed in 1933, many states chose to keep their Sunday liquor restrictions. The Supreme Court upheld the laws' constitutionality in 1961, though it forced states to find a rationale for them that was not religious.

Only in the past few years—and, more specifically, during the recent economic slowdowns—have these old liquor laws begun to disappear en masse. The first off the wagon was Oregon, where lawmakers facing a budget crunch in 2002 decided to give liquor-store owners the option of opening on Sundays, promising to move the estimated $3 million in extra revenue directly into the state's general fund. Four more states followed the next year, though some, worried about a conservative backlash, were more cautious than others.

In Pennsylvania, the state liquor control board is now allowed to open one quarter of the commonwealth's 600 state-run wine and spirits stores on Sundays based on consumer demand. In Virginia, the Sunday alcohol ban was lifted initially only in large cities and urban counties; this year, it was expanded to include cities with 100,000 people or more. Colorado state law, meanwhile, still prohibits grocery stores from selling anything but reduced-strength, 3.2 percent beer.

That these Prohibition-era laws have survived as long as they have continues to mystify legislative experts and wine aficionados alike. Retailers of nonalcoholic products have been allowed to sell their wares on Sundays for decades. As more and more households feature two working parents, Sunday has become the second-busiest shopping day of the week.

There has been some opposition to lifting the bans from liquor-store owners themselves, who have worried that they will simply spread six days of business over seven days—and lose their day off in the process. But that hasn't proved to be the case: A recent study found that the dozen states that have recently allowed liquor to be sold on Sundays generate more than $200 million in new state revenue every year. The average liquor store in these states is earning between 5 and 8 percent more per week. "It's good for the store owners, it's good for the state, and it's added convenience to the consumer," says David Wojnar, vice president of government affairs at the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, an industry lobbying group.