Plan to start drinking at 10 a.m. Sunday? Blue laws have a storied past in NC

Sunday diners could enjoy a mimosa with their brunch under a bill that moved a little closer to passage Wednesday.
Sunday diners could enjoy a mimosa with their brunch under a bill that moved a little closer to passage Wednesday.

The sale of alcohol on Sundays has long been a controversial issue in North Carolina, where “blue laws” were in place for years.

The state’s new law, known as the “Brunch Bill,” loosens regulations. Restaurants and grocery stores can now start selling alcoholic beverages at 10 a.m. instead of noon, as long as local government boards approve the the change.

Some municipalities, including Raleigh, moved quickly this week to OK the earlier sales.

The bill, signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper on June 30, is the latest change in the history of rules about which items and services can and can’t be sold on Sundays.

In 1961, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected challenges to Sunday laws in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts on the basis of the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment and the religious-liberty clauses of the First Amendment. This ruling upheld the rights of municipalities to regulate Sunday sales.

The N.C. General Assembly enacted a law to “prohibit certain business activities on Sunday,” restricting the sale of “clothing and wearing apparel, clothing accessories, furniture, housewares, home, business or office furnishings, household, business or office appliances, hardware, tools, paints, building and lumber supply materials, jewelry, silverware, watches, clocks, luggage, musical instruments and recordings.”

In 1962, the state Supreme Court rapidly overruled the law because of its vagueness and because it was inconsistent. For example, the law granted exceptions to counties that had a large tourist trade.

Blue laws were enforced on a county-by-county and city-by-city basis and continued to be just as confusing. Restrictions passed by the Raleigh City Council in 1968 included the following exemptions:

Cigar and tobacco stores or stands and newsstands may keep open for the sale of tobacco, tobacco products, paper and periodicals and accessories, soft drinks, ice cream, candy and cakes.

Drug stores having a licensed pharmacist may do business on Sunday, but cannot sell those items otherwise prohibited.

Stands for the sale of fruit and melons may remain open.

Garages and filling stations may carry out usual operations, except that they can’t sell the items banned in stores.

Grocery stores and curb markets may remain open for the sale of any items not otherwise prohibited in the law.

Hotels, boardinghouses, cafes, restaurants and confectioneries and wiener stands may conduct business as usual, including the sale of food, cigars, cigarettes, tobaccos and soft drinks.

Ice manufacturers can sell their products, but certain restrictions are placed on deliveries.

Ice cream manufacturers, dairies and creameries are exempt form the ordinance.

Newspapers and magazines are exempt from items that may be sold. Bootblack stands are exempt.

Movies may be shown at the usual Sunday hours; sporting events also will not be affected.

Barbershops must remain closed.

City councils in Raleigh and Durham voted out their last blue laws in 1975. By 1989, 46 of 278 municipalities responding to a survey by the N.C. League of Municipalities still had some Sunday shopping restrictions.

Now, alcohol cannot be purchased between 2 a.m. and noon, unless local governments change the time to 10 a.m. under the new law. ABC stores are closed on Sundays.

So where did the term “blue laws” come from, anyway? There are varying opinions about its origin.

Laws in the New Haven colony in the late 17th century were printed on blue paper, according to the book “Blue Laws: The History, Economics, and Politics of Sunday-Closing Laws.”

Other historians say the term comes from “true blue,” referring to people who don’t change their convictions or policies. Still others argue the term refers to the effort to prevent “blue” or indecent behavior.