Taking a Day Off From Buying Booze

September 28, 2009

Indiana Writers Group
Taking a Day Off
From Buying Booze

For release noon Sept. 29 and thereafter (667 words)

by Andrea Neal

Call me old-fashioned, but I think it’s a good thing that Hoosiers can’t buy alcohol at supermarkets or liquor stores on Sunday. Do we really need another day to stock up on intoxicating beverages?

The self-interested special interests (i.e. the big-box chains that want to nudge up their Sunday sales figures) have hijacked this debate. They’ve convinced us it’s about competition and consumer convenience, not health, safety or what’s best for society.

The most recent meeting of the legislature’s Interim Study Committee on Alcoholic Beverage Issues was an endless parade of retailers concerned about making more or less money should Indiana change the law, which permits alcohol sales on Sundays only in restaurants and bars.

The supermarkets and retail chains want to end the Sunday prohibition. They even found Professor David J. Hanson of State University of New York to claim that Sunday carryout sales may reduce heavy drinking on Saturdays. Try getting your head around that one.

The package liquor stores, which would incur labor costs staying open on Sundays, mostly oppose changing the law. For them, this is also an economic matter.

Incredibly, time ran out before many of the folks concerned about substance abuse got to testify: people like Scott Allen of the Advisory Council on Underage and Binge Drinking, Phil Burton and Nancy Beals of Drug Free Marion County and Tammy Loew of Drug Free Coalition of Tippecanoe County.

It’s almost as if policymakers don’t care about the social effects of drinking. A growing number seem to think it’s not the state’s business to tell consumers what they can do on Sunday.

Granted that Blue Laws are a remnant of a time when public policy was often used to advance Christian aims. At the end of the 19th century, most states had laws prohibiting certain activities on Sunday in an effort to help citizens honor the Sabbath. That changed in the 1960s when courts insisted such laws have a secular basis. Since then, Blue Laws have been mostly repealed in favor of commerce. (Indiana still prohibits vehicle sales on Sundays).

But there’s evidence aplenty to suggest Blue Laws make sense. Using an economic analysis, researchers Jonathan Gruber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Daniel Hungerman of the University of Notre Dame found that repeal of Blue Laws not only decreased church attendance, donations and spending but led to a rise in alcohol, marijuana and cocaine use among churchgoing people. Their study, published in the May 2008 edition of The Quarterly Journal of Economics, also documented “new evidence that repealing blue laws is associated with more risk taking by young adults.”

A case in point: Gallup, N.M., where the local alcohol crisis center experienced a rise in emergency admissions on Sundays after Sunday alcohol sales were legalized in the mid 1990s. “The increased availability of alcohol on Sundays clearly affected protective custody admissions,” said study author Mark D. Miller. As a result, the community started a petition process and reinstituted a Sunday sales ban.

The government has no business passing laws designed to boost church attendance, but it surely has an interest in behaviors that increase demand on social welfare systems, jails, shelters and drug treatment facilities.

The 18th Century English scholar, Sir William Blackstone, said, “The keeping one day in the seven holy, as a time of relaxation and refreshment as well as for public worship, is of admirable service to a state, considered merely as a civil institution. It humanizes, by the help of conversation and society, the manners of the lower classes, which would otherwise degenerate into a sordid ferocity and savage selfishness of spirit; it enables the industrious workman to pursue his occupation in the ensuing week with health and cheerfulness.”

Blackstone’s comment chafes with modern sensibilities but expresses a practical truth. “Do not let Sunday be taken from you,” said the great humanitarian Albert Schweitzer. Whether or not we observe the Sabbath, we do need Sunday: a day off from vice to nurture our minds and bodies if not our souls.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.


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