Sale of 42 Items Outlawed on Weekend : Texans, Yankees Pick Sides in Blue Law Issue

Associated Press

On the books for more than a century, a quirky "Blue Law" allows Texans to buy beer on Sunday but not a mug to drink it from.

These days, however, some transplanted Yankees, discount store chains and others say it's time for the law's repeal.

"People move to Texas because they like our life style. Now they want to make it like the life style they came from," complains Mickey Moore, executive vice president of the Texas Retailers Assn., which backs the law.

Confusing List

The Texas Blue Law is a confusing list of 42 items that cannot be sold on consecutive Saturdays and Sundays. In effect, the law forces many stores to close on Sundays. Its name comes from the original, 1863 Sunday closing statute that was bound in blue paper.

The list of banned items includes clothing, shoes, furniture, kitchenware, china, home appliances, hardware, air conditioners, radios, televisions, motor vehicles, jewelry, watches, musical instruments, toys, draperies and lawn mowers.

Similar laws, whose origins date back to the Pilgrims, exist in 18 other states and are supported by church groups. The Southern Baptists favor the Texas version.

Repeal has emerged as an issue because of changing times, according to several state legislators.

"Texas is more urban," said state Sen. Ray Farabee of Wichita Falls, noting the booming growth of the state's cities, three of which now rank among the 10-largest in the nation.

"We, essentially like the rest of the country, have one-parent families or two-parent families, both of whom are working. Time to buy things is limited," Farabee said.

"The law is archaic and outdated. It's time to move into the 20th Century," added state Rep. Doyle Willis of Fort Worth, who has tried three times to push a repeal bill through the Legislature.

Openly Disregarded

"This is a law that heretofore has not been enforced but, more important, it is now being openly disregarded by merchants and consumers over the state. This is bad--we have a law that no one (or very few) obeys," Willis said.

From Houston to El Paso, stores are doing business on Sundays in open violation of the law. What angers Blue Law backers more, customers are buying.

"I'm from California, and I've never heard of such a thing until I came here," said Bob Schwartz of Austin, who was out shopping on a recent Sunday.

State judges in Houston and Dallas late last year ruled the Blue Law unconstitutional. Many prosecutors, including those in Travis County where the capital is located, simply don't enforce the law.

"It is a law that is broken each week," Willis said in a letter to Gov. Mark White, urging him to designate repeal of the law an emergency so the Legislature could act upon it more quickly.

The repeal legislation was introduced in January; it's expected to be considered during the current legislative session.

Leading the charge for repeal is a newly organized lobbying drive called Texans for Blue Law Repeal Inc. The group includes such national retailers as K mart, Target, Eckerd Drugs, Revco Drugs, Zale Jewelers, Sears and Southland Corp., operator of nearly 1,000 7-Eleven convenience stores in the state.

Longer Shopping Hours

"Our feeling is that there is a desire from our customers to have longer shopping hours, which would be provided by Sunday openings," explained Sears spokesman Ralph Russell.

The group has hired veteran lobbyists to carry the fight to the legislative halls.

"The infidel is not at the gate, he's in the castle," Blue Law defender Tom Blanton said. "They've never had this battery of high-powered lobbyists surrounding the Capitol before."

Blanton, lobbyist for the pro-Blue Law Texas Automobile Dealers Assn., predicted that there will be a backlash among the public. "The guy at the low end of the economic scale knows who's going to be working Sunday," he said.

The law's critics say many businesses, including some local department stores, don't want to open on Sundays because of the additional overhead cost.

But the retailers group rejects that, saying one main reason the law stays on the books is that the public likes it.

"The general feeling is they like employees to have a day of rest when they can be with their families, and Saturdays and Sundays are really the most appropriate times for that time off," said David Sapp, general counsel for the auto dealers.

Boost Tax Take

Besides the convenience argument, repeal backers say Sunday sales would boost the state's sales tax take. State Comptroller Bob Bullock has estimated that Sunday sales could generate $13.5 million annually.

But Moore, of the retailers' association, said Sunday sales would only stretch six days' business out over seven days.

"You are not going to buy an extra suit just because you can go to the store on Sunday," he said.

David Christensen, owner of five Textile Outlets of Houston, joined many other anti-Blue Law merchants who say the public ought to have the option.

"I think the whole thing boils down to a matter of choice," he said. "If I want to open on Sunday, that is my choice. If the big department stores don't want to, they don't have to."

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