It’s been nearly two years since Minnesotans have been able to purchase off-sale liquor on Sundays. The 159-year old ban on sales on Sunday sales ended on July 2, 2017, just in time to stock up on firewater to watch the Independence Day fireworks.

Like many other never-on-Sunday proscriptions, the law is defunct, repealed after years of agitation and mild controversy. While most prohibitions of Sunday transactions have gone by the wayside, one citadel has yet to fall: the ban on the commercial sale of vehicles, which affects more than two dozen licensed new and used vehicle dealers in the quad communities as well as their many employees and customers.

Pulpits and pews

Religious beliefs were an undergirding of many of the Sunday prohibitions, including the liquor sale ban, an antipathy of many from the pulpit to the pews in engaging in commerce or liquor on the Lord’s Day. The so-called “Blue Laws” in Minnesota and elsewhere were spearheaded by the labor movement in the late 19th century, which sought reduction of excessive working hours imposed on employees.

Seeking a “40 hour work-week,” workers and their advocates successfully obtained passage of legislation in many jurisdictions, requiring businesses to be shuttered on Sundays, giving employees a respite from oppressive working conditions.

The U.S. Supreme Court recognized the “rational” economic basis for these measures in a unanimous decision in 1961 in a quartet of consolidated cases entitled McGowan v. Maryland. It reasoned that the “Blue Laws” were not grounded on religious reasons, but were secular attempts to provide a uniform day of rest one day of the week for all citizens to advance the health, safety, recreation and general wellbeing of everyone.

The Minnesota Supreme Court reached a different outcome seven years later. Addressing an irrational hodgepodge of different goods and services that were sold on Sundays in Minnesota (cameras and luggage could not) and those that were allowed (film, purses and wallets were okay), the justices in a 1968 case found the state Blue Law too “vague and uncertain to be valid,” paving the way for more Sunday retail.

The car case

For vehicles it has still been “never on Sunday” in Minnesota based upon a law dating back to 1957, one of only 13 in the country, including neighboring Wisconsin, Iowa and North Dakota.

The prohibition has a significant impact on the quad communities. There are more than 3,600 licensed Minnesota vehicle dealers, including 1,096 new vehicle dealers and 1,943 used dealers, with some overlap. In the quad communities, there are 28 licensed dealers: six new and eight used in Golden Valley; Crystal has one new and nine used licensees; New Hope has one new and two used licensees, and a single used dealer in Robbinsdale.

Many contend that the “never on Sunday” vehicle law is an anachronism that should be eliminated in light of changes in society, consumer shopping practices and the recently upended liquor law.

First, a disclosure: I represented Minnesota car dealers over the years in successfully fending off various legal challenges to the Sunday sales proscription, but have not had any association or connection with car dealers or that issue since then.

Alcohol v. automobiles

One significant difference between alcohol and automobiles is the way the business is conducted. Purchasing a vehicle, usually costing several thousands of dollars, requires credit financing by banks or other financial institutions. Nearly all of those banks are closed, either by federal or state laws, regulations, or custom on Sundays, except for slight consumer transactions at a handful of grocery chains at those ubiquitous ATM machines. The general unavailability of financing on Sundays makes car sales unfeasible, if not impractical, on that day.

In contrast, it is a peculiar purchaser of liquor, indeed, who needs outside financing. Buyers of alcohol who require a bank loan for their purchases have a lot of other problems besides finances.

Another notable difference between Sunday transactions of vehicles and liquor is that cars and trucks require transfers of title and other governmental registration compliance, in addition to insurance. Those offices are also closed on Sundays, impeding the finalization of transactions. In contrast, liquor buyers need not register anything with anybody–merely open the bottle or pop the cork and start pouring.

The Sunday ban on car sales does not prevent all business practices from occurring. Consumers can still look around most car lots shopping around for the vehicles they would like to buy, comparing models, price and the like before returning later to make a purchase.

Moreover, the Sunday ban only applies to those licensed dealers, including the 28 in the quad communities. Private parties can still sell and buy used vehicles on any day of the week and at any time.

Courts have recognized these considerations. In the most recent Sunday vehicle legislation two decades ago in Kirt v. Humphrey, the Minnesota trial and appellate courts upheld the proscription, following the reasoning of the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1961 decision in viewing it as a “rational” economic measure, rather than impermissible ecclesiastical legislation.

Another reason exists for disallowing vehicle sales on Sundays. Now that selling liquor is legal; it can be hazardous to allow drinking and driving on Sundays.

For those who plan to buy a car or drive one, stay away from liquor and have a safe and Happy Fourth of July.

Marshall H. Tanck is a Golden Valley resident and Constitutional law attorney and historian.

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