Sunday has just become a little less busy in Poland, thanks to a new law banning most commercial shopping that took effect in March.
And Poland’s move, which bucks the prevailing trend in secularized countries toward an ever-more commercialized Sunday, could provide a constructive example for the United States, where the network of state “blue laws” that once restricted Sunday business activities has been substantially reduced.
The Polish government enacted a new law that bans most businesses from being open more than two Sundays a month in 2018. By 2020, retailers will only be able to open on seven Sundays a year. The law, initially proposed by the Solidarity labor union in 2016, was endorsed by both the ruling Law and Justice Party and the nation’s Catholic bishops.
Some exceptions remain: Gas stations, cafes and pharmacies, among others, will be unaffected by the law. Small family businesses can remain open, as well, on the condition that only the owners work on Sundays.
Polish President Andrzej Duda praised the law for helping workers to spend time with their families on Sundays and anticipated it would help strengthen Polish society.
While President Duda said the law was restoring “normality” to Sunday, the legislation runs counter to the prevailing trend of Western democracies to end trading prohibitions on Sunday. In the United States, restrictions on Sunday shopping — often called “blue laws” or Sunday closing laws — are comprised of more exceptions than rules. Just 18 states restrict auto sales on Sunday. Several others ban hunting or alcohol sales.
Even modest restrictions have ended, to popular acclaim. Indiana ended its ban on Sunday alcohol sales in March, and Minnesota repealed a similar law in 2017.
Sunday Mornings in North Dakota
The only current example in the U.S. of a statewide retail ban is in North Dakota, which prevents many retailers from opening on Sunday morning.
Christopher Dodson, the executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, told the Register that after arriving in North Dakota from California, it took time to adjust to some businesses being closed on Sundays. But he appreciates now “the lack of temptation to go out and shop.”
The Sunday closing law has been under continuous pressure for several years by retailers who fear they are losing business to out-of-state competitors on Sunday mornings.
The support for changing the law, Dodson said, reflects “the constant drive for profit” by businesses, but also a “libertarian-individualist” argument that the government should not intrude on how and when they choose to run their businesses.
“That ignores there are things good for society and bad for society,” he said. “True freedom is freedom to do the right thing.”
As it turns out, there are documented drawbacks to ending blue laws. A 2008 study found that repealing Sunday closing laws led to a decrease in church attendance and tithing, along with a significant rise in alcohol and drug use among the religious population.
Daniel Hungerman, an economics professor at the University of Notre Dame who co-authored the study, told the Register the changes were not a coincidence.
“When you induce people to stop going to church, it changes their decisions about risky behavior,” he said.
Importantly, the study found “little evidence” that declines in religious attendance preceded the repeal of the blue laws. Instead, opening up Sunday to secular pursuits creates direct competition with religious obligations.
Dodson admitted that he and others arguing to preserve a modicum of time free from consumerism face “an uphill battle.”
“But the more I’m involved, the more I see it’s not about Sunday shopping — it’s about who we are and our values as a community.”
Natural and Divine Law
Dodson emphasized that Sunday closing laws are rooted in natural law — a recognition of the importance of a common day of rest.
“Courts have agreed with what the Church has always taught — that the benefits of a day of rest are knowable through natural law,” he said.
Supreme Court opinions upholding the constitutionality of Sunday closing laws found that regardless of the religious origin of the laws, they were important in maintaining the “health, safety, recreation and general well-being” of the public.
But, of course, for Christians, there are religious obligations, as well. Father Bill Peckman, pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul in Boonville, Missouri, told the Register that when he discusses how to observe Sundays with parishes, he emphasizes that time for worshipping God at Mass is integral, “not something that we do if we can fit it into the schedule.”
In his 1998 apostolic letter Dies Domini, Pope St. John Paul II wrote, “Time given to Christ is never time lost, but is rather time gained, so that our relationships and indeed our whole life may become more profoundly human.”
Father Peckman said that while people often have commitments to other activities on Sunday — ballgames or work, etc. — “part of being a faithful Catholic is knowing what to say Yes or No to.”
Unnecessary work, he said, should wait for another day. “The day of the Lord is for our good and isn’t meant to be a burden.”
By organizing the day around Mass and enjoyment of community, Father Peckman said, people can “build up the bonds between them and God and between family and friends — which is what God probably had in mind.”
From the early years of their marriage, Sundays for Ryan McKenna and his family have been days for gathering their family and friends. After morning Mass, they would open their home, letting the afternoon be a time for community.
Now with several children, he and his wife have opportunities to catechize on Sundays, as well. “The kids ask, ‘Why aren’t you going to work today?’ And you explain, ‘It’s Sunday, and on Sunday we go to church, and then we imitate the divine order by resting.’”
But the joy of family and friendship, McKenna said, needs to rest on putting God first. By placing worship foremost, he said, other responsibilities and duties, like family, fall into their proper order.
“Being intentional about putting God first leads to having a structure and rhythm for all your other priorities,” he said.
Honoring the Third Commandment also has a direct relation to their vocation as parents, he said. “When you put God first, you have to transmit that knowledge and responsibility to your children, because your primary vocation as a parent is their moral formation,” McKenna said.
“If I put my career first, I don’t think I would ever get to that.”
Register correspondent Nicholas Wolfram Smith writes from Oakland, California.