Will Lepage stay clear of Sabbath day closings

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A hallmark of Gov. Paul LePage’s agenda is easing up on laws controlling private businesses. There’s one arena of commercial regulation that does not yet seem to have come within his sights, however: Sabbath day closing laws.

Maine mandates the Sunday closure of all car dealers and nearly all government offices. Prevailing customs also see a Sabbath observed by most professional offices and banks. The “24-7” ethic has yet to penetrate every layer of Maine society but with a staunchly pro-business proponent inhabiting the Blaine House, are further changes in the offing?

A quick journey showing how we got to where we are might offer some clues.

Sabbath day closing laws have been around almost since the day the Mayflower struck Plymouth Rock. But a Depression-weary society of the 1930s began to loosen up. By 1939, this meant that cities and towns in Maine were for the first time given the option to let movie theaters throw their doors open Sunday afternoons and evenings.

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Similarly, by 1947 municipalities were given the option of allowing Sunday bowling.

Even though movies and bowling had until these new laws been prohibited, there had long been an ambivalence about retail stores. As far back as 1903, Lewiston Police Marshall Wing’s attempt to enforce the ban against retailers were regarded by the Lewiston news media as meaning “for the first time” some traders would be required to observe the Sunday closing laws.

The 1903 enforcement was only temporary, however. By 1961, many of the laws against Sunday retail sales were still being flaunted by retailers with impunity. That’s because the $10 fine for violating them was a mere trifle measured against the financial gain of staying open. Moreover, in the increasingly secular culture of mid-20th century Maine, these laws were still rarely invoked. One car dealer recalled for this columnist that Sundays were one of his busiest days of the week.

Conducting retail business on Sunday had been almost routine behavior for a long time until about 1960. As long as the check-out counter cash remained in Maine, the look-the-other way approach raised few eyebrows. That changed when such out-of-state chains as Mammouth Mart and Zayre came to Portland just as the 1950s turned into the 1960s.

In two sessions of the Maine Legislature in the early 1960s, laws against Sunday openings were ramped up. Jail terms were even made available for a first offense. (A sporting equipment exemption was carved out so that L.L. Bean could sustain its own 24-7 tradition.)

Confronted with the new legislation that put teeth into the law, the large retailers backed down and shut their doors on Sundays. With a minor amendment passed in 1983 for Christmas season sales, this law stayed on the books until just over 20 years ago. That’s when all retailers, except car dealers, were given the green light to open Sundays. The early 1960s thus witnessed a regime where large retailers shut down on Sunday, all that is except for Portland car dealer Cliff Libby.

Libby chose to take advantage of an exemption on the books since 1841. This allowed business owners whose religion observed the Sabbath on Saturdays to open on Sundays. Subjected to prosecution for violating the law, Libby defended his practice on the grounds that it was in keeping with the tenets of his Seventh Day Adventist religion, which as with the Jewish tradition, maintained Saturday and not Sunday as the Sabbath. Portland Municipal Judge Sidney Wernick, later one of the state’s most prominent appellate jurists, agreed and the charges were dismissed.

Ever since Libby closed his Forest Avenue car dealership in the early 1970s, Mainers haven’t been able to buy vehicles from dealers on Sundays, even though both Jewish as well as Seventh Day Adventists could sell them a car on Sundays if they chose to close on Saturdays instead.

Some other businesses, however, whose owners observe Saturday as their day of rest have continued to close Saturdays and open on Sundays. Among them: Little Lads Restaurant at Portland’s Monument Square, and at least two well-established health food stores, Farmington’s Better Living Center and Skowhegan’s Spice of Life, all operated by Seventh Day Adventists.

Jewish businesses in Maine have been less inclined than the Adventists to follow in Cliff Libby’s footsteps, however. As Abe Peck, Maine’s leading Jewish history scholar explained to this columnist last week, “Jews sought to avoid any reason for non-Jews to ostracize them any more than was already happening. … Perhaps it was easier for Seventh Day Adventists to open on Sunday because they saw themselves as still being a part of Christian America.”

Will Gov. LePage’s pro-business impetus help give car dealers the same seven-day nonstop opportunity as most other retailers? Probably not, in part because most dealers themselves like the law the way it is. A bill introduced in 2005, for example, at the behest of a working parent who couldn’t find time to shop for a new car except on weekends, was opposed by the auto dealers association. Many dealers — like those in the 13 other states with similar bans — prefer to be able to give their staff a full day off each week, particularly when so many of them are pressed into evening duty on other days.

Besides, it may also be good for some customers. They have a day a week they can usually prowl quiet lots without the intervention of adroit dealer personnel.

Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of Maine’s political scene. He may be reached by email at pmills@myfairpoint.net.

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