This is New Jersey, not J'lem

Bergen County residents battle it out over laws restricting Sunday commerce.

By MARILYN HENRY IN NEW YORK
April 3, 2010 23:26
3 minute read.
A woman shops at a department store in New York.

shopping new york 311. (photo credit: AP)

 
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New York, the city that never sleeps, is directly across the Hudson River from the final bastion in New Jersey to take seriously its Sabbath day of rest – Sunday, that is. Bergen County is the last of the 21 counties in New Jersey to adhere to the so-called blue laws, the laws that bar or restrict commerce on Sunday.

This is not about religion, about choosing the sacred over the profane, of protecting the Christian Sabbath from desecration. It is about such inviolable principles as the right to shop vs. the right to serenity.

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In the US, the premise of the Sunday closing laws was that commercial and entertainment venues should be closed on Sundays to respect the sanctity of the Christian Sabbath. While the laws evolved over time, making more activities permissible, there long were restrictions on shopping and alcohol sales. The idea seemed to be that church attendance would suffer if people could spend Sunday morning in the stores or the pubs.

Devotion to blue laws has eroded across the US. Thirty-five states allow alcohol sales on Sundays, most allow car sales and almost every state allows general sales (clothing, electronics, hardware and the like). Sundays are for spenders; it has become the second-busiest shopping day of the week. Not in Bergen County, however, where voters traditionally have supported the ban.

YET YOU would have thought it was Armageddon last month when the new governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, proposed repealing Bergen’s blue laws, which are thought to be the most restrictive in the US. This was all about money. In his proposed state budget, Christie calculated that lifting the ban on Sunday shopping in this one county would generate $65 million in sales tax income for the state.

That’s a lot of shopping on 52 Sundays a year, but Bergen is uniquely suited to meet the goal. It is the most populous county in New Jersey, and among the richest in the US. Bergen also is a popular shopping mecca for New Yorkers because sales taxes are lower than they are across the river.

County and some local officials vowed to fight Christie’s proposal. They say they just want peace and quiet one day a week in this profoundly crowded area. They argue that Sunday sales would reduce the quality of life by increasing traffic congestion, and that such damage to the quality of life would have a negative effect on property values.



Blue laws may have religious Christian origins (as the US Supreme Court acknowledged in upholding them nearly a half-century ago), but the idea of a day of rest is also a cherished labor principle that protects workers from being exploited. Labor law, however, does not specify on which day one should rest. Weekends here also have a recreational purpose, which for many means Sabbath and shopping.

THE BERGEN closure laws are not based on the same principle as in Israel, where proponents of Shabbat closures base their claims on their religious beliefs and the sanctity of the day. Still, although the Bergen opposition seeks respite from clogged highways as people try to reach mega-malls, proponents of the blue laws can exploit religious passions about protecting the Christian Sabbath.

And this is where it may get ugly, as politicians try to pass a state budget in the next few months. There have been pitched battles for decades over the Sunday shopping ban in Bergen, but this is the first time the governor of a cash-poor state has jumped in and made it such a prominent issue.


The debate already seems to have an unpleasant overtone, leaving many of us angry or uneasy. When a local news station broadcast interviews with devout elderly residents agitated about the proposed desecration of their day   of rest, my first reaction was: “Whatever happened to live and   let live? This is New Jersey, not Jerusalem.”

There is no legal right to shop, so I cannot claim that I face discrimination as a Jew in Bergen County; I am simply inconvenienced. The blue laws nevertheless seem patently unfair to Jews and Seventh-Day Adventists who observe a shopping-free Sabbath.

On Sundays, we residents of Bergen can shop in New York and pay higher taxes for our purchases. Or we can drive across the Bergen County line to reach New Jersey stores that are open on Sunday. This all seems reminiscent of the old days of the American “wet-dry” laws, when residents in a “dry” state drove to a “wet” jurisdiction to buy liquor. How different these days are: I can buy scotch in Bergen on a Sunday, but not shirts.

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