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Never on Sunday: How about buying a car?

REUTERS/Mike Blake
The liquor ban is quite different from the prudent five-decade-old prohibition on selling, or buying vehicles on Sundays, and demise of the former does not warrant setting aside the latter.

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

Marshall H. Tanick
MinnPost photo by Jana Freiband
Marshall H. Tanick

There aren't that many legal barriers remaining following the lifting of the 159-year-old ban on sales on Sunday (and most national holidays, too), even antedating statehood. Like many prior never-on-Sunday proscriptions, it is defunct, extinguished by the Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton earlier this year allowing Sunday sales effective this past Sunday. 

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

Similar to the former no-Sunday liquor law, a measure has long been on the books 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.

One of only 13 of its kind

The five-decade-old Minnesota law is one of only 13 of its kind in the country, including similar proscriptions in neighboring Wisconsin, Iowa, and North Dakota. But it appears to some 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 matters.

But no so fast. Because the liquor ban is quite different from the prudent five-decade-old prohibition on selling, or buying vehicles on Sundays, and demise of the former does not warrant setting aside the latter.

First, a disclosure. I have, over the years, been involved in litigation successfully fending off various legal challenges to the Sunday sales proscription, most recently a lawsuit in the late 1990s, which resulted in the ban being upheld by both a judge in Ramsey County and three of jurists on a panel of the Minnesota Court of Appeals. But I have not had any association or connection with the car dealers or that issue since then and have no stake — personally, pecuniarily, or professionally — in the matter.

One significant difference between alcohol and automobiles is the 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.

Title transfers

Another notable difference 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 upcoming 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. 

Not a religious law

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.

As described in court testimony of 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 have undercut some of the economic rationale for the proscription, but it still retains vitality today.

In the most recent round of Sunday vehicle sale litigation two decades ago, in a case entitled Kirt v. Humphrey, both the lower court and appellate judges 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, they 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) and which, most notably, the U.S. Supreme Court had recognized in 1961 in upholding Sunday “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 entitled McGowan v. Maryland, 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.

A 'rational' economic enactment

In the car case, the Minnesota appellate court picked up on this "uniformity" theme, viewing the Sunday no-sale measure as a means of assuring "uniformity" in sales practices. It was, the court explained, motivated by car dealerships in the Minneapolis and St. Paul, which had many dealerships in those days and saw Sunday sales in the rural areas and growing suburban markets as an unfavorable competitive force. This motivation made the measure a "rational" economic enactment, not an impermissible ecclesiastic one.

The Minnesota Supreme Court reached a different outcome in a challenge to a 1967 state law barring many retail transactions on Sundays in a case entitled Target Stores, Inc. v. State, although that case turned on other constitutional considerations. Addressing a "test case" concerning the Sunday sales proscription, the justices in St. Paul viewed the hodge-podge 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.

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. Speaking of economics, the car ban has important fiscal features. Allowing Sunday transactions would, many in the industry feel, create a big commercial advantage for large multifacility dealerships in the Twin Cities to the detriment of smaller, mainly family-owned enterprises in Greater Minnesota, whose customer base could be more easily lured to the metropolitan area to shop for cars on that day, a characteristic generally not present in the off-sale liquor business. 

Not much outcry

Finally, 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 outcry from the public or solons 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."

And there is a final reason not to allow most vehicle sales on Sundays. Now that liquor is legal, it can be hazardous to allow drinking and driving on Sundays.

Marshall H. Tanick is a constitutional law attorney with the Twin Cities law firm of Hellmuth & Johnson.

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Comments (5)

False equivalency

Never having been associated with an automobile dealership except as a customer, I don't have any financial dog in this particular fight, but find myself wondering, since auto and light truck sales are prohibited on Sunday by law here, if motorcycles, ATVs and other licensed vehicles can be sold? If not, then there is at least a certain logical consistency to the prohibition. On the other hand, if I can buy a Harley-Davidson but not a Chevolet, there's not a rational leg for this prohibition to stand on.

I'd argue (not in court, since I'm not a lawyer) that the discrepancy in Sunday sales was, first and foremost, a nod to evangelical Christianity, and is largely a remnant of the Puritan notion that no work of any kind was to be done on "the Sabbath." That it persists into the 21st century IS an anachronism, though not because of any perceived conflict with religion. We all have our own cultural blinders on from time to time. I once knew a Baptist preacher who did, in fact, give sermons on the evils of working on Sunday, but the same preacher was perfectly happy to take his family out to Sunday dinner at local restaurants on a regular basis, to the prohibition against work apparently did not extend, in his mind, to the cooks, servers, and other personnel who spent their Sundays feeding families and individuals.

I think Mr. Tanick has presented us with something of a false equivalency. I agree that selling cars and selling liquor are not the same thing, but I don't think that's where the logical disconnect takes place. A prohibition on Sunday sales of automobiles only makes sense if ALL retail sales are prohibited on Sunday, via what have quaintly been called "blue laws." Mr. Tanick's example of the constraints on auto titles, because those state offices aren't open on Sunday, doesn't really fly very well, since those same offices are also closed on Saturday, when auto sales are not only possible, but encouraged by your friendly local dealer. Either way, my local Target is open, and its employees at work, on both Saturday and Sunday, and the same can be said for many other retail establishments. If I can buy auto parts on Sunday, I ought to be able to buy an automobile on Sunday, as well.

An argument might – and likely will – be made that allowing Sunday sales will simply spread the same number of sales over 7 days instead of 6, while driving up dealer costs for salaries and overhead, but that's the same argument used by smaller liquor stores against Sunday sales, and even the legislature eventually decided that line of thought was no longer persuasive. It's no more persuasive for auto dealers than for liquor stores.

As an old retired guy, I can shop for a car any day of the week, but that's not true for the bulk of the population, and people holding down 9-to-5 jobs essentially have to make those kinds of big purchases (Real estate can be purchased on Sunday, why not cars?) on weekends. There's not much logic behind prohibiting auto sales on Sunday when other kinds of retail sales, including other auto-related sales, are permitted.

Old time Soucheray and Reusse fans...

Will remember this on Sunday auto shopping:

"Browse today, bend over tomorrow"

And before we move on to auto sales let's take another legislative page from our cheese head friends and allow us to put a quart of Jack Daniels next to the Cheerios in our grocery cart: Liquor sales permitted to grocery stores...

If it Walks Like a Duck...

Every one of the arguments presented to support maintenance of a Sunday ban apply equally to Saturday, and several of them also to other days of the week. You can claim this is not religion-based, but it still waddles and quacks.

What about the other 37 states?

So if there are so many insurmountable problems with selling cars on a Sunday (banks, titles, etc.), how do the other 37 states pull it off?

If a buyer and a seller want to and can mutually agree to a transaction, why should the government have any say as to what day they are allowed to do it?

Face it, this is the same protection racket that the liquor stores had. You get to close down one day a week without worrying that your competitor can stay open and take your business away on that day.

Uhh

Are govenment offices open on Saturdays? Are banks - at least the loan departments? How does anyone buy a car on Saturday?

This has to be about the worst defense of a law I have ever seen. It's an insignificant issue, but I'm offended by it because the arguments here are so poor.