In Two Guys from Harrison-Allentown, Inc. v. McGinley, 366 U.S. 582 (1960), the companion case to McGowan v. Maryland, the Supreme Court ruled that Sunday blue laws did not violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment or the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Court upheld Pennsylvania's Sunday blue laws

In the opinion for the Court, Chief Justice Earl Warren observed that Pennsylvania’s Sunday-closing laws were similar to those of Maryland. The distinction between what the state allowed vendors to sell and what it did not had a rational basis, and the large fines that the law imposed were aimed at large retail businesses that might otherwise choose to pay a smaller fine rather than obey the law.

Warren rejected the argument that the law improperly established religion because “it commemorates the Resurrection, obliges everyone to honor this basic doctrine of the major Christian denominations by abstaining from work and encourages Christian religious worship.” Acknowledging that the original Pennsylvania laws on the subject had this purpose, he accepted the state’s contention that the laws being enforced had secular rationales. He attributed remnants of earlier language — references to “Sabbath Day” and the like — to “legislative oversight in failing to remove them.” Establishing a day of rest for the general population remained a valid secular purpose. Justices Felix Frankfurter and John Marshall Harlan II cited their concurrence in McGowan, and William O. Douglas referenced his dissent in that case.

John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment. This article was originally published in 2009.

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