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Blue Laws -- Washington State
HistoryLink.org Essay 9057
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On November 8, 1966, Washington state voters adopted Initiative 229, repealing the so-called “Blue Law,” which had been enacted in 1909. This action legalized the operations of thousands of businesses in the state that had been opening on Sunday in violation of that law, and eliminated the legal bias favoring religions whose day of worship was Sunday. It also ultimately led to the sale of liquor on Sunday in the state.
In Washington in 1966, it was a crime to sell most kinds of goods and perform most types of services on Sundays. In addition, at midnight on Saturday nights restaurants and bars picked up their patrons’ alcoholic drinks and shooed the customers out the door. Two laws created this situation.
In 1909, the Washington Legislature passed the “Sabbath Breaking” law (Chapter 249, Section 242, Laws of 1909), which prohibited most businesses from operating on Sunday. The law was commonly called the “Blue Law,” and was a very broad expansion of an 1881 law that only prohibited “fighting or offering to fight, horse-racing or dancing” on Sunday. Religious motivations played a major role in its adoption. However, people also viewed it as being “progressive” legislation that prohibited most employers from requiring their employees to work seven days a week, in an era before workers had the protection of state labor regulations and labor union collective bargaining agreements.
Following the repeal of nationwide prohibition of alcoholic beverages, the Washington Legislature adopted the “Steele Act” (R.C.W. Title 66) in 1933. It established a comprehensive structure for state regulation of the sale of liquor and created a three-member state Liquor Control Board. That board adopted regulations that included a specific prohibition on the sale of any kind of alcoholic beverage on Sunday, and the requirement that already-sold drinks be picked up at midnight on Saturday night.
Thousands of businesses continued to operate on Sunday, flaunting the Blue Law. Because it took effect on March 22, 1909, the new law immediately ensnared the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle, which was supposed to operate seven days a week from June to October of that year. Although the A-Y-P did not sell any alcoholic beverages on its grounds, some of its concessions sold goods such as mementos. In addition, the basic operation of the exposition itself arguably transgressed the law’s prohibition against “any noisy or boisterous sport or amusement” on Sunday. The headline of a Seattle Daily Times front-page article on Saturday, June 5, 1909, summed up the story: "Exposition To Be Open Part of Tomorrow: Management Yields to Almost Unanimous Demand From Public That Sunday Closing Rule Be Not Enforced."
However, sporadic, isolated prosecutions occurred. In September 1965, Ned Van Duyne, a used-car dealer in Mount Vernon, Washington, was arrested and successfully prosecuted for selling cars on Sunday rather than going along with the “gentlemen’s agreement” among the other local dealers to be closed. A rather bizarre incident occurred in March 1966. Police in Buckley cited news reporters for violating the law by being present and reporting on the staging of an illegal Sunday purchase of otherwise lawful goods, by Blue Law crusading attorney Alva C. Long.
These and other related issues came together in 1966 to create the most successful initiative election campaign in state history to that time.
The Campaign Against the Blue Laws
The initial impetus for that campaign was not altogether altruistic. In February 1966, the newly elected leaders of the Young Democrats of Washington State (State YD) were looking for a campaign issue that would attract Democratic voters to the polls in that year’s congressional, state legislative, and county elections. The prosecution of the car dealer for Sunday sales had generated critical comment in the media about its hypocritical violation of the concept of equal application and protection of the law. The media commentary also argued that the law trampled on the constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state. It gave Sunday-worshiping faiths that “day of rest” from work, but no legally mandated day of rest for faiths that worshiped on other days.
Perhaps most importantly, many state residents and merchants were fed up with the Liquor Control Board’s total ban on Sunday liquor sales. Since the Blue Law had a provision prohibiting “open[ing] any drinking saloon,” many people thought that its repeal would automatically open the door for liquor sales on Sunday, both packaged and by the drink.
Strategies and Obstacles
The State YD leaders agreed with all of those anti-Blue Law sentiments except for the assumed impact of repeal on Sunday liquor sales. They decided that repealing the state’s Blue Law would be the most energizing issue they could use to promote a big voter turnout in the November 1966 general election. However, they were taking on a monumental challenge.
Washington state historically had a strong anti-liquor movement based in several Christian denominations, particularly the Methodist Church, and in the Alcohol Problems Association, which was an outgrowth of the nationwide anti-liquor movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For several decades, this movement’s political lobby had stymied attempts by the Washington State Restaurant Association to get the Legislature to authorize some Sunday sales of liquor. In addition, liquor and restaurant industry leaders initially were not enthusiastic about a repeal attempt in the 1966 election. They believed chances for success would be greater in the 1968 election, when the voter turnout would be much higher because the offices of both president and governor would be on the ballot.
Some labor organizations supported the broad ban the Blue Law placed on commercial activities on Sunday, in order to preserve it as a day off for their members. For example, meat was a product that supposedly could not be sold on Sunday. This gave the butchers’ union a successful argument against merchants requiring butchers to work on that day. The retail clerks’ union supported the ban for the same reason. On the other hand, some unions favored repeal, because their collective-bargaining agreements gave their members time-and-a-half or double-time pay for Sunday work.
Young Democrats, Young Republicans, Seventh Day Adventists
These obstacles did not deter new State YD President Lem Howell (b. 1936), a Seattle attorney. He filed an initiative proposal with the Secretary of State on February 18, 1966, which became Initiative 229. Howell also sought political allies. His first success was convincing Camden Hall (b. 1940), a Seattle attorney and the past president of the University of Washington Young Republicans club, to join the effort as co-coordinator with Howell. This union created the possibility of running a bipartisan initiative campaign.
Howell also focused his attention on the daunting problem of collecting 100,022 valid registered voters’ signatures statewide by July 8, to qualify the initiative proposal for the November 1966 general election. The fledgling campaign organization had no membership and no money to pay people to solicit signatures. A July 1966 Seattle Magazine article expressed the opinion of many political observers that it “seemed dubious” that the initiative campaign could be successful.
Howell thought that the Seventh Day Adventist churches in Washington state might be convinced to assist the campaign. The Blue Law arguably discriminated against that faith because its day of worship and rest from labor was Saturday, not Sunday. It had long participated in a national publicity campaign about the issue. However, the proposal might be a tough sell to those churches, because their doctrine preached complete abstinence from liquor consumption.
Howell met with Glenn Patterson, a Seventh Day Adventist from Olympia, who was the Washington State representative of the International Religious Liberty Association and who already supported the concept of repeal. Howell proposed that the key issue was the Blue Law’s violation of religious freedom and the principle of separation of church and state. He pointed out that the Liquor Control Board had broad powers to regulate all sales of alcoholic beverages. Although there was no definitive legal ruling on the subject, a strong argument existed that the board could continue to ban Sunday liquor sales even if voters repealed the Blue Law. Therefore, the liquor issue was a separate one for that board to address. Patterson agreed, and he successfully gained the endorsement of the initiative by the Washington Conference of Seventh Day Adventists.
The Petition Campaign
Despite the fact that Blue Law crusader Alva Long had always publicly claimed that he favored its enforcement, Howell says that Long paid for the printing of the first batch of initiative petitions. Adventist church members solicited petition signatures door-to-door throughout the state. By the end of the signature collection campaign, they obtained at least 40 percent of the total turned in. In addition, the state Restaurant Association decided to support the campaign, and more than 1,000 restaurants around the state collected petition signatures. Supporters also solicited signatures at ferry terminals and outside of football games and other sporting events. The initiative campaign organization ultimately turned in 187,463 valid signatures to the Secretary of State, the largest number collected to that date in the history of initiatives in Washington state.
Hall and Howell were able to build the statewide bipartisan group of campaign workers that Howell had envisioned. Besides collecting signatures, their organization prepared a kit of materials for speakers to use, and solicited speakers and speaking engagements throughout the state that sometimes involved debates with opponents. They also sought endorsements, ultimately gaining them from a broad range of both Democratic and Republican political organizations, Junior Chambers of Commerce, newspapers, and even from many religious organizations. Hall worked energetically to raise money for the campaign. However, its budget for both signature collection and election campaigning turned out to be only about $25,000. Therefore, endorsements and speeches were the primary promotional techniques used, in addition to the Seventh Day Adventists’ active campaigning.
The opponents’ key campaign issue was the claim that repeal of the Blue Law would result in Sunday liquor sales. The proponents’ answer to that was the disarmingly simple allegation that Howell had proposed to Patterson: It was a separate issue that should be debated before the Liquor Control Board, which had the independent authority to continue the Sunday sales ban. The proponents took no position on that issue. Nevertheless, it was obvious to signature collectors and speakers that many voters favored the initiative because they wanted liquor on Sunday. During the campaign, the Liquor Control Board remained officially neutral on this issue, despite editorial pressure from the media for it to advise voters of its intentions. However, one board member, whose term in office was to end on January 15, 1967, publicly stated his personal opposition to the initiative.
Election Day and After
On Election Day, November 8, 1966, a tidal wave of “yes” votes for Initiative 229 swept across the state. A majority in every county except Stevens voted in favor, totaling more than 64 percent of the votes cast statewide.
The successful bipartisan political cooperation exhibited in the Blue Law repeal campaign carried over into Seattle politics. Hall, Howell and a number of other young Seattle Democrats and Republicans who played major roles in the 1966 initiative campaign came together with other young activists to create Choose an Effective City Council (CHECC). It succeeded in electing two newcomers to the Seattle City Council in 1967 and eventually helped elect a new majority on that Council.
Still Lacking Liquor
This was not the end of the Blue Law repeal story, however. Although its repeal took effect on December 9, 1966, no liquor sales occurred in the state on the following Sundays. The Liquor Control Board’s regulation banning them still existed. Either the board or the Legislature would have to act to change the law.
A slow dance started. It was attended by the Legislature, the Liquor Control Board, and Governor Daniel J. Evans (b. 1925), who had publicly stated his support for Initiative 229. At first the Board sat it out to see if the Legislature would take any action on the matter during its session that began on January 9, 1967. The board member who had announced his opposition to Sunday liquor sales retired at the end of his term on January 15. The State Senate rejected another board member who was an interim appointee. The governor immediately nominated replacements, including one who had publicly said he favored allowing Saturday night sales to continue until 2 a.m. on Sunday morning. The State Senate confirmed those nominees, but the Legislature adjourned in April without addressing the Sunday sales issue.
Changes and More Changes
Finally, on July 17, 1967, the Liquor Control Board held a public hearing on its own proposal to allow liquor sales on Sunday. On July 19, it announced its unanimous adoption of a new regulation allowing sales of liquor by all private licensees on Saturday nights until 2 a.m. on Sunday, and on Sundays from 2 to 10 p.m. On August 20, 1967, Sunday sales began of packaged beer and all by-the-drink liquor. Packaged wine and “hard” liquor could be sold only by state-owned liquor stores, which remained closed on Sundays because a separate statute (R.C.W. 66.16.080) controlled that issue.
In 1969, the Legislature authorized sale of packaged wine by private licensed wholesalers and retailers, including on Sundays. In 1970, the Liquor Control Board extended Sunday sales hours to midnight, and in 1976, it opened Sunday sales to the same hours as for the remainder of the week. Almost 10 years from the date on which the state’s voters overwhelmingly repealed the Blue Law, an expectation of many of those voters was finally fully satisfied.
Charles T. Michener, “Our Abiding Sunday Blues,” Seattle Magazine, July 1966, pp. 21, 23, 24; "Auto Dealer Is Charged with 'Sabbath Breaking,'" Skagit Valley Herald, September 16, 1965, p. 1; “Citizen Donates $100 to Defend Reporter in Blue Law Snafu,” The Citizen (publisher: Robert Johnson), March 1966, clipping in possession of Peter LeSourd, Pasadena, California; Peter LeSourd interview with Lem Howell, February 16, 2008, Seattle; Peter LeSourd interview with Allan Munro, February 20, 2008, Seattle; Editorial, “Blue Law Initiative,” The Seattle Times, February 20, 1966, p. 8; “Memo: Progress Report #3” from Lem Howell and Camden M. Hall to Friends of Initiative 229, June 2, 1966, in possession of Peter LeSourd; "Howell Man To Watch In Future Politics," Tacoma News Tribune, July 10, 1966, p. 85; Peter LeSourd speech for campaign speaking engagements, 1966, in possession of Peter LeSourd; “Index to Initiative and Referendum History and Statistics, 1914-2008,” State of Washington, Secretary of State website accessed June 2009 (www.secstate.wa.gov/elections/initiatives); Camden Hall, email to Peter LeSourd, June 1, 2009, in possession of Peter LeSourd; “Preliminary Memorandum” from John A. Merry to Campaign Committee for Initiative 229, August 4, 1966, in possession of Peter LeSourd; UPI wire service, “229 Group Neutral on Sunday Liquor,” The Seattle Times, November 21, 1966; Gordon W. Schultz, “Liquor Board Takes ‘Neutral’ Stand on Blue-Law Initiative,” Ibid., September 13, 1966; Editorial, “Clarify the Liquor Issue,” Ibid., September 15, 1966; “Don Abel Opposed to Initiative 229,” Ibid., September 18, 1966, p. 20; Gordon W. Schultz, “Evans Backs Blue-Law Repeal,” Ibid., September 20, 1966, p. 5; Lyle Burt, “Specialty Liquor Stores Urged by New Member,” Ibid., January 4, 1967, p. 17; Leroy Hittle, “Hagist Defeat Is Setback For Evans,” Ibid., March 4, 1967, p. 13; “Associated Press Man Named to State Liquor Control Board,” Ibid., March 3, 1967, front page; Dale Nelson, “Board OK’s Sunday Liquor; Sales to Begin August 20,” Ibid., July 19, 1967, front page; Bill Mertena, “You Can Buy a Drink Today For First Time Since 1930s,” Ibid., August 20, 1967, p. 37; “Washington State Retail Liquor Sales Task Force Final Report -- December 2000,” State of Washington, Liquor Control Board website accessed June 2009 (www.liq.wa.gov);
"Exposition To Be Open Part of Tomorrow: Management Yields to Almost Unanimous Demand From Public That Sunday Closing Rule Be Not Enforced," Seattle Daily Times, June 5, 1909, p. 1.
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Bumpersticker urging voters to vote for Initiative 229 to repeal the Blue Law, Washington state, 1966
Courtesy Peter Blecha collection