Maine is one of a small handful of states that still impose so-called “blue laws,” or prohibitions on certain activities on Sundays or major holidays that prevent specific businesses from opening for religious purposes. A bill with bipartisan support in the legislature this session would allow municipalities to exempt local establishments from Maine’s blue laws, specifically grocery stores with up to 10,000 square feet of selling space.
Lawmakers on the Innovation, Development, Economic Advancement and Business Committee on Thursday held a public hearing on LD 15, sponsored by Rep. MaryAnne Kinney and cosponsored by Sen. Erin Herbig, a bill that would give municipalities in Maine the option to enact an ordinance that exempts grocery stores from the statewide blue laws that prohibit these establishments from operating on Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
While this measure this does not go as far as it should, it is preferable to current law.
Consumers and business owners should be the primary entities to decide whether or not specific stores are open during the holidays. Current statute reflects government at its worst; bolstering specific industries and operations by picking winners and losers. LD 15 would allow grocery stores with up to 10,000 square feet of customer selling space to be open on Thanksgiving, Easter, and Christmas if their municipality allows it.
Maine is one of only three states (Massachusetts, Rhode Island) that still impose these restrictions on major holidays. Blue laws are not only uncommon in the United States but they are also outdated. These laws were “stiff Sabbath regulations” developed by Puritans in some New England States and colonies, and many still persist today. Historically, the most famous (or infamous) blue laws prevent the purchase or sale of alcohol on Sundays.
The plan reality is that state government does not know what is best for every business, large or small, in Maine. While the bill does not give complete control to consumers and business owners, it would allow more Maine businesses to be open on major holidays. Current law does not allow establishments with more than 5,000 square feet of customer selling space to be open on Thanksgiving, Easter, and Christmas, period.
Blue laws affect consumers, business owners and employees in different ways. Consumers are affected because they are not able to conduct last minute food shopping around the holidays at larger grocery stores. Employees who work at these grocery stores are not afforded the opportunity to earn extra wages during the holidays, and business owners who own grocery stores cannot bring in extra revenue.
Former Governor Paul LePage vetoed similar efforts last session, and for good reason. There are a host of businesses already exempt from Maine blue laws, including taxicabs, newspapers, restaurants and farm stands. In his veto letter, LePage said he supports letting grocery stores open on major holidays but said the Legislature should “stop granting piecemeal carve-outs” and “allow all Maine businesses the opportunity to decide whether to be open when and how they see fit based on market demand.”
The former governor is right – businesses should decide when to open based on what consumers want. LD 15 is unfortunately another one of these dreaded “piecemeal carve-outs.” But in the absence of legislation to undo Maine’s blue laws in their entirety (or appetite among members of the committee to amend the bill to strike these rules from Maine law) LD 15 would allow more businesses to operate on holidays and set in motion a process for these antiquated laws to be undone. That’s a better place than where we are today.
In the 21st century, vestiges of our strict religious heritage, however valid when guiding personal behavior, should not dictate public policymaking. Lawmakers should pass LD 15 this session and explore options in the second session to remove all blue laws from Maine statute.