Hominy & Hash
WHEN THE SCARLET LETTER IS BLUE
by Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- Sometimes, long-established laws don't mean anything to me at all. I don't mind seeing a sign affixed to a telephone pole saying NO SPITTING ON THE SIDEWALKS. The law is on the books; the sign upholds the law. It has nothing to do with me and I'm not going to look around for offenders.
That law goes back a few hundred years, I'm sure, and was a
necessary edict right up until cowboys, chewing tobacco and spittoons
went the way of horse-drawn carriages and hoop skirts. The law doesn't
hurt anyone by just sitting there in dusty old law books or on metal
signs nailed high above the pedestrian traffic.
And I've gotten used to having lunch late in the day if we go to a restaurant on a Sunday, because blue laws still on the books in my state, Georgia, dictate that no alcoholic beverages be sold on a Sunday except in a place that sells food - and then only after 1:00 p.m.
It would do little good to berate the proprietor at 12:30 p.m. for not uncorking our wine because of the hour; it's such a stupid law. But stupid or not, it is the law.
It also did little good at 11 o'clock last Saturday night as I drove along in the pouring rain for no other reason than to pick up a six-pack of Budweiser to have on hand for Sunday's football game. We're not beer-drinkers ourselves, but we'd be watching the game with friends. I berated myself for not getting up a petition against that stupid law to finally get it off the books.
I resolved to get to the bottom of who and what bears responsibility for my having to park the car in a puddle-riddled parking area and dash across it to the automated door awaiting my arrival just to buy a small amount of the one beverage one of the guests would surely ask for. Unlike a restaurant, I could provide mountains of food and bottles of alcoholic beverages, but why couldn't I run out to buy more if I ran out? Why not on a Sunday? I should be able to pick it up after Mass in the morning if I want.
The general response to that question is that I should have planned ahead. The people living 60 miles away in the State of Florida don't have to plan ahead, but Georgians do. Something is not right, and it's not my rights that matter - it's "states rights."
Getting to the bottom of the laws took me way back to the Puritans in the 17th-Century colonies in America. Before that, the Roman emperor Constantine. in the year 321, according to David Leband, author of Blue Laws: The History, Economics, and Politics of Sunday Closing Laws, proclaimed, "Let all judges, and all city people, and all tradesmen, rest upon the venerable day of the sun."
Why call them blue? Was it because they were printed on blue paper? Or perhaps because the word "blue" came to mean "rigidly moral?"
New York's blue laws carried very stiff fines and penalties, say, six shillings or three hours in the stocks. But compared to Virginia, they were light. If a citizen broke any Sunday laws three times, he faced death. I can hear a fellow of the day saying: "I'm dying for a beer, but I'd better wait until tomorrow. or I really will die."
In the late 1890's, when my mother was a girl, they went to their local Presbyterian church and returned home to sit, read the bible, pray, eat supper, sing some hymns and then go to bed. That scenario was the precursor to what is on the books now in Georgia and other states.
These blue laws created by the states are not to be confused with a county's being "dry." In those areas, the citizenry votes to forbid alcohol sales within its borders. I learned this first-hand in Williamsburg, Tenn. I was stopping overnight and asked the reservations clerk if there was a restaurant nearby where I could enjoy a nice sit-down dinner and a glass of wine. "Oh, no," she said. "This is a dry county." Sadly, I could deal with that, just as a couple hundred miles earlier I had dealt with South Carolina's law. I filled the gas tank and, as I paid, I asked for a lottery ticket. "Oh, we don't hold to no gamblin' in South Carolina."
Well, there I was, feeling every bit the fallen woman, gambling, drinking, driving across state lines. Whatever would become of me?
As I've mentioned, I find the blue laws absolutely stupid. The best argument against them is that you can't legislate morality. And there's no proof that Sunday restrictions have reduced anti-social behavior.
As I delve into blue laws, cognizant of being a displaced native New Yorker, I find my resentment just might be built in to my psyche. In a biography of Al Smith, New York's 1920s governor, author Christopher Finan notes "The interference of upstate Republicans in both the administration of New York City and the social life of its citizens was deeply resented."
They resented it and they obviously did something about it - what, I don't know, but the restrictive laws went away.
I do know this. On Sunday morning in New York City, most of the nicer restaurants serve customers complimentary champagne with breakfast. There is no law that says you have to drink, it but there's no law that says you can't.
AR Correspondent Constance Daley is a newspaper columnist living in St. Simons Island, Ga. Her third collection of columns from The American Reporter was published in September.