For decades, the State of Georgia’s alcohol regulations allowed the sale of alcohol in stores for six out of seven days per week, with the odd day out being Sunday. And while Sunday sales in stores remained outlawed, Sunday sales of the otherwise legal product in most restaurants was conspicuously legal. This seemingly social schizophrenia regarding alcohol was the result of a conflict between free enterprise and the depression era activist interpretation of the Ten Commandments, in particular the commandment which instructs its followers to remember the Sabbath day and to keep it holy.
Not surprisingly, this is the same interpretation which led the Georgia General Assembly to outlaw fishing on Sundays in 1907. Unlike Sunday alcohol sales however, Sunday fishing obviously didn’t quite rise to the same level of Sabbath day offense in the eyes of those 20th century fundamentalist lawmakers, and that ban was subsequently overturned. The prohibition of Sunday alcohol sales remained on Georgia’s books and in spite of the overt and specific religious justification for the law, legal challenges under the First Amendment’s religious establishment clause to what became known as “blue laws” went nowhere. The Supreme Court’s baffling support of blue laws in the 1961 case McGowan v. Maryland along with several other cases, allowed the Georgia law to sit uncontested, until now.
After years of failed attempts, the pressures of an increasingly moderate and modern Georgia and a strong pro-business metro Atlanta, finally provided enough influence to push the issue over the goal line. As we now know, with a pro-business Governor in office, the Georgia General Assembly took another serious look at one of the last remnants of our old outdated blue laws. During one of the final days of the 2011 session, the General Assembly very deftly punted the issue of Sunday sales to the individual municipal jurisdictions under the clever populist guise of “local control of local issues.” It was a brilliant political move that pushed the issue to the people and kept lawmakers out of the “holy day” cross-hairs.
The legislation passed and with the Governor’s signature, local jurisdictions (i.e., city and county governments) were allowed to vote via referendum on whether or not to allow local sales on Sunday. The first opportunity for such a vote came in November of 2011 and to the surprise of virtually no one north of Interstate 20, of the 127 counties and cities who were able to coordinate a Sunday sales vote in time for the election, 106 passed. The next opportunity for a vote came on March 6, 2012 – Super Tuesday. Of the 13 metro Atlanta jurisdictions with the issue on the ballot, 13 passed Sunday sales.
Not surprisingly, some of the more evangelical members of Georgian society have expressed their discontent with the fact that the people at large were given this choice. They have suggested on the surface that an extra day of alcohol sales in stores will lead to broken homes, increased DUIs, and possibly even increased deaths on Georgia roads. One can not deny alcohol’s potential for destructiveness. It is well documented by public health professionals that a reckless addiction to alcohol, just like a reckless addiction to drugs, gambling, cigarettes, sex, etc., can leave a trail of destruction in the form of abuse, disease, poverty, and yes even death. But in the absence of data supporting the claim that a seventh day of legal sales in stores will cause social catastrophe; the teetotaler argument holds no evidentiary water.
I imagine if these Sunday sales dissenters are honest with themselves, they will discover the root of their discontent resides not with a fear of increased alcohol abuse, but with the fears shared by their Third Great Awakening forbears. Sunday sales for them becomes a secular treading upon of that early 20th century interpretation of the holy day commandment.
Alas, my fundamentalist religious friends need not fear. Their right under the US Constitution to practice their religion as they interpret it and spend Sundays how they see fit, remains firmly intact even with the rolling back of this antiquated blue law. There will not be, nor of course should there ever be, a government requirement to purchase or consume alcohol on Sunday. There is no governmentally forced religious conflict and liberty for all rules the day.
While we can admit that it took Georgia’s lawmakers much longer to arrive at a proper conclusion for Sunday alcohol sales than it did for them to overturn the ban on Sunday fishing, at least we can say with confidence that another government restriction of personal liberty can go where it should have gone shortly after the adoption of the 21st Amendment: out of the law books, and in to the history books. Cheers to that.