blue laws

Onerous “blue laws” need to be purged from state law and local ordinances.

Onerous blue laws need to be purged from state law and local ordinances.  Though rarely enforced, they are an embarrassment to the rule of law, according to Scott Benowitz

It’s no secret that many states, counties, cities and towns throughout the U.S. still have quite a few blue laws remaining within their legislation and their governments.  Most of these are laws which date back to the 19th century, and were written either because of religious ideologies or were relevant to 19th century technologies (i.e., where you are and are not permitted to allow your horses to drink water from on certain streets during certain times, etc.).   These blue laws are so archaic and obsolete, that they’re mostly viewed as a novelty.  Students in law schools routinely tell jokes about these laws.  And while they initially seem harmless, I believe that it is far likelier that people would respect the legal system if towns, counties, and cities would purge their 19th century blue laws from the books.  It would show that legislators are actually paying close attention to the systems that they work within and have made the effort to modernize their laws.

There are a number of different kinds of blue laws which still exist throughout the U.S. today 

Some of these laws relate to sales of automobiles and alcohol on Sundays, others relate to 19th century technologies.  Some are based in religious concepts.  Some blue laws are just plain preposterous and no one, not even legal experts can make any sense of their origins.

 A very small handful of remaining blue laws are actually discriminatory- and though these laws are clearly not intended to be enforced in the present century and these laws only still exist because legislators have forgotten that they exist at all, as I was researching this article, I was surprised to discover that a handful of segregation laws that discriminate against Native Americans still have not been eliminated yet, and still appear on the books in at least 4 states.  

Aside from the laws which state which businesses can and cannot legally operate on Sundays, the hundreds of remaining blue laws which still exist in various towns, cities, villages, counties and states today are so archaic and obsolete that most law enforcement agencies don’t even teach their officers about them.

Policemen and policewomen throughout the U.S. are well aware that there are a handful of laws remaining from the 18th century, the 19th century as well as the earliest years of the 20th century which have not yet been officially overturned or removed from the local statutes, but they know that these laws are so archaic that they have no relevance to today’s world, and therefore they don’t need to familiarize themselves with them because the issues that these laws address are not issues that any modern law officers will ever encounter.   

Outside of a handful of counties in Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania which have sizeable Amish and Mennonite communities, for the past 100 years, no one anywhere in the U.S. has really needed the laws which state where you are permitted to tie up your horses on public streets, and where you’re permitted to allow your horses to drink water from when you ride them in public streets.  

So why do we still have these laws on the books, why aren’t politicians attempting to overturn and remove them, and are they really as harmless as they initially seem?

Seems harmless enough, no?

That’s precisely my point here.  If we want to maintain the status quo, if we want things in our country to remain precisely as they are in the present, if we want nothing to change, then yes, we need to make zero (0) changes to our existing laws and to our existing legal codes.  If we want to keep a system in which there’s not much of a shortage of people who are already feeling marginalized, then we can continue to make zero (0) changes to our laws.  If however, we want to demonstrate to people that we have a legal system here which is worth taking seriously, then perhaps we may want to consider eliminating obsolete laws, humorous though they may be.  And we do still have quite a few legal relics from earlier centuries which are officially still on the books in many municipalities, only because no one has made the effort to review them or propose overturning or eliminating them.

The issue may initially seem trivial because most people who have lived in this country understand that these laws have not been taken seriously since the first decades of the previous century, and that these obsolete archaic blue laws are nothing more than relics from earlier centuries.  However, all of our laws are under close scrutiny in ways that many Americans don’t realize.

Whether or not it is appropriate for our Federal government to view the U.S. as being the self- imposed “world’s policemen” is not the topic of this article- entire volumes of books have been written about this, this is discussed at length on quite a few news shows, I’m not going to attempt to resolve the issue here.  We do hold a permanent seat on the United Nation’s Security Council, and like it or not, we continue to maintain military bases in quite a few countries throughout the world, we’re presently involved in a number of conflicts throughout the world, we’re involved in overthrowing foreign governments and assisting with the process of attempting to replace them with new ones.

 This has been the case for the past 100 years, and it isn’t likely to change anytime soon.  That means that people who live in those countries are going to see our soldiers entering into their country, and despite what former President Bush (Jr.) had told us, while some of those people are going to welcome us with open arms and view us as being their liberators, not all of them are.

 Some of them are going to be curious to learn more about Americans, about the world where these soldiers are coming from, and to learn what they can about the American legal system- especially if we’re involved in deposing their leaders and attempting to be involved in overseeing the process of the establishing of new governing bodies over there.  And now that people in most countries do in fact have almost unlimited access to the internet, there’s nothing that goes on anywhere in the world that they won’t be able to learn about at the touch of a button.  And they may be offended when they see these American soldiers are coming from a country which still has so many laws on our books which are so deeply entrenched in religious concepts which date back to the 17th, 18th and the 19th centuries.  And it won’t be so easy to explain to them that these are nothing more than vestigial relics which our politicians view as too trivial to waste their time overturning.  

While this is quite obviously not the source of resistance movements in the countries where some people view our troops as occupiers rather than liberators, if we’re trying to win over the hearts and the minds of people who are living in war torn countries, we need to show them that our troops are coming from a country whose politicians actually pay close attention to 21st century international law, that our legal system is rooted in nothing other than international law, and not in religious concepts- and that means that our local laws are also based in modern concepts too.

This is the beginning of a series on blue laws by Scott Benowitz. Links to the following articles will be added when published.

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...

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