Thought Leadership

Never on Sunday; How about buying a car?

“And on the seventh day God ended his work …

and he rested… from all his work.”

Genesis 2:2 (King James Bible version)

Now that Minnesotans can purchase off-sale liquor on Sundays, the question becomes what’s next for retailers and consumers on that day.

There aren’t that many legal barriers remaining following the lifting of the 159 year-old ban on off-site liquor sales on Sunday (and most national holidays, too), which antedates statehood by a year. Like many prior never-on-Sunday proscriptions, it is defunct, extinguished by the Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton earlier this year, allowing sales effective this Sunday, July 2, just in time for the upcoming July Fourth weekend.

But one citadel that has yet to fall is the prohibition on sale of vehicles on Sundays.

Ripe repeal?

Similar to the former Sunday liquor ban, a measure has been on the books for many years proscribing licensed vehicle dealers from doing business on that day, although its lineage only dates back to 1957, a century less than the liquor law limitation. The vehicle measure, Minn. Stat. § 168.275 proscribes licensed dealers from selling vehicles on the “first day of the week,” which is “commonly known and designated as Sunday.” The penalties include a misdemeanor for a first offense, and a stepped-up gross misdemeanor for multiple offenses, along with licensing sanctions under Minn. Stat. §168.27 subd. 12 (14).

The six-decade-old Minnesota law is one of only 13 of its kind in the country, including similar proscriptions in a number of neighboring jurisdictions and otherwise, primarily in the Midwest. But it appears to be an anachronism that, on the surface, seems ripe for repeal in light of changes in society, consumer shopping practices, and the momentum of the liquor law saga, among other reasons. With buying liquor now permissible on Sunday, can car sales be far behind?

But not so fast. Because the six-decade-old prohibition on selling, or buying, vehicles on Sunday is quite different from the repealed liquor ban, the demise of the latter does not necessarily warrant setting aside the former.

Differences depicted

One significant difference between alcohol and automobiles is depicted in way the respective businesses are conducted. Purchases of vehicles, usually costing many thousands of dollars, often require financing by banks or other financial institutions. But nearly all of them are closed, either by federal and state laws and regulations or custom, on Sundays, except for slight consumer transactions at a handful of grocery store chains and those ubiquitous ATM machines. The general unavailability of financing on Sundays makes many car sales infeasible, if not impossible, on that day.

In contrast, it’s a peculiar purchaser of liquor indeed who needs outside financing. Buyers of alcohol who require a bank loan to make the purchase have a lot of other problems besides finances.

Another notable distinction between Sunday transactions of liquor and vehicles is that cars and trucks require transfer of titles and other governmental registration requirements, as well as insurance. But the offices that handle those matters at state, county, and local levels and in the private sector are closed on Sundays, impeding the finalization of transactions on those days and driving off the premises. In contrast, liquor buyers need not register anything with anybody, just open the bottle or pop the cork and start pouring and drinking.

Further, the ban on car sales on Sundays does not prevent all business practices from occurring. Consumers can still look around most car lots and kick the tires, so to speak, in shopping around for the vehicle they would like to buy, comparing models, prices, and the like before returning to the dealerships to take a test-drive and consummate a deal during the week. Window shopping on Sundays is not much solace to those wanting to imbibe booze on that day or serve it to others.

It’s a real rarity for someone to desperately seek to purchase a vehicle on Sunday, unless perhaps they need a getaway car for a bank robbery, but even that won’t work unless they plan to pull a heist at one of those ATMs.

Moreover, the Sunday ban only applies to licensed dealers. Private parties can still sell, and purchasers buy, used vehicles on any day of the week and at any time.

Unlike the liquor limitation law, which had been the subject of much public angst and legislative efforts for several years, there is not much clamor from the public or the solons for repealing the Sunday ban on vehicle sales.

Closing concept

A key undergirding of the liquor-sale ban was religious in nature; an aversion by many from the pulpit to the pews to countenancing the indulging in alcohol on the Lord’s Day.

But that premise does not underlie the prohibition of vehicle transactions. Similar to a number of other so-called “blue laws” in Minnesota and elsewhere, the law forbidding car sales stems from different, legally permissible motivations.

The Sunday closing concept is traceable to the Roman Empire, and it became sanctified by decree of the Catholic Church in A.D. 538. The term blue laws to describe official measures mandating the cessation of business-related activities, and some recreational ones as well, on Sundays is attributable to the mid 17th-century when the Cromwellian rulers of England, known for wearing blue stockings, imposed these restrictions. The notion was carried over to the American colonies by the early Puritanical settlers and became widely-accepted by social customs and some local laws and practices in the New World.

But the premise for the proscription shifted in the late 19th century. As described in court testimony of by Hy Berman, the late iconic history professor at the University of Minnesota, the prohibition was prompted by secular considerations spearheaded by the nascent labor union movement of the late 19th century agitating for reduction of the then-prevalent excessive working hours imposed on employees. Under the rubric of the “40-hour work week,” workers and their advocates successfully obtained passage of legislation requiring many business operations to be shuttered on Sundays, giving employees a respite from oppressive working conditions.

Enactment of minimum wage and overtime compensation measures at federal and state levels over the next two generations undercut some of the economic rationale for the proscription, but it still retains vitality today.

Professor Berman’s testimony was central to the outcome of Sunday vehicle no-sale litigation two decades ago. In Kirt v. Humphrey, 1997 Minn. App. LEXIS 1052 (Minn. App. 1997) (unpublished), the Minnesota Court of Appeals, affirming a ruling of the Ramsey County District Court, rejected the argument that the Sunday car closing law is an improper religious-oriented measure or discriminates against those who celebrate the Sabbath on different days or not at all. Rather, both the trial judge and appellate court jurists uniformly regarded the Sunday closure law as a rational economic measure that does not infringe any constitutional rights of aspiring purchasers or sellers of vehicles, a proposition that a court in Texas agreed with a decade later (albeit with a Saturday closing option).

Drawing upon the historical analysis of Professor Berman, the appellate court in Kirt viewed the Sunday sales prohibition as decidedly secular aimed at bringing about uniformity to dealer sales of motor vehicles irrespective of individual religious beliefs. The court noted that the statute was, prompted by competitive economic concerns of car dealerships in Minneapolis and St. Paul that at the time were closed on Sundays due to city ordinances. Those dealerships were disadvantaged by the Sunday closing ordinance since dealerships opened on Sunday in suburban and great Minnesota markets. Nor did it offend the state constitutional proscription in Article 12, § 1 against special legislation.

The Kirt case adhered to the reasoning of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U.S. 420 (1961), upholding blue laws in a number of states against a strong, but unsuccessful constitutional challenge on religious grounds. The high court, in a decision written by Chief Justice Earl Warren in a quartet of consolidated cases reasoned that the blue laws were not grounded on religious reasons but were secular attempt to provide a uniform day of rest for all citizens in order to advance the health, safety, recreation, and general well-being of everyone, regardless of religious views or practices or lack of them.

The Minnesota Supreme Court reached a different outcome on a Sunday closing case here seven years later, although that case turned on other constitutional considerations in Target Stores, Inc. v. State, 156 N.W. 2d 908 (1968). Addressing the irrational hodgepodge of varied goods and services that were illegal to be sold on Sundays (cameras and luggage could not) and those that were allowed (film, purses and wallets were OK), the justices found the law too vague and uncertain to be valid, paving the way for widespread retailing on that day. The case came to the court as a criminal matter, with charges leveled against one of its outlets and personnel for violating the newly enacted Sunday closing law, L. 1967, ch. 165, also out of concern about suburban retailers cutting into sales of retail competitors.

Affirming a ruling of a Hennepin County District Court dismissing the charges, the court, in what it deemed a test case, followed the McGowan rationale in holding that the law “does not offend against the First Amendment religious freedoms.” It also grudgingly held that the law did not violate Equal Protection. However, the measure was held to be constitutionally infirm under the Due Process clause of the 14th Amendment because of its ambiguous statutory scheme, which left citizens having to guess whether items like barbecue grills were allowed to be sold or prohibited as home appliances and whether blankets were permissible or proscribed as home furnishings, among other vagaries.

But, for vehicles, it’s still been never on Sunday in Minnesota since the era when cars had fins in the rear and guzzled a gallon of gas nearly every 10 miles or less.

Fiscal fortunes

The car ban rests on important fiscal features. Allowing Sunday transactions would, many in the industry feel, create a big commercial advantage for large multi-facility dealerships in the Twin Cities to the detriment of smaller, mainly family-owned enterprises in greater Minnesota. The greater Minnesota customer base could be more easily lured to the metro area to shop for cars on Sunday, a characteristic generally not present in the off-sale liquor business.

Additionally, unlike the liquor law limitation, which had been the subject of substantial dispute and legislative debate for several years, there does not seem to be much public outcry to lift the proscription on Sunday vehicle sales.

The Sunday no-sale situation for cars in Minnesota, now commemorating its 50th anniversary, may exemplify the adage “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

There is yet a final reason not to allow most vehicle sales on Sundays. Now that buying off-sale liquor is legal, it can be hazardous to allow drinking and driving on Sundays.

Another inconsistency: rather than the uniformity theme underlying  the no-cars-on-Sunday law, the repeal of the liquor prohibition provides a local option for communities to  maintain  Sunday sales unlawful. A few have done so, like Bemidji and Ely, while many others ranging from Albert Lea to St. Cloud, have chosen to allow Sunday sales, with different timing restrictions.

But, for car buyers who are intent on purchasing a vehicle, they can do so on July Fourth. Even though banks, title registration offices, and insurers are closed that day, a number of vehicle dealerships will be open for business, as they were on Memorial Day. Yes, there is an inconsistency there between some of the reasoning supporting the Sunday sales ban and the reality of the marketplace but, as Ralph Waldo Emerson, once declared, in a phrase that resonates throughout the law: “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.”

For those who plan to buy a car, stay away from the liquor.


Some other Midwest states banning Sunday car sales

  • Wisconsin
  • Iowa
  • North Dakota
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Missouri
  • Oklahoma

Originally published in Minnesota Lawyer