D.C. Becomes 17th Jurisdiction to Legalize Sunday Liquor Sales Since 2002


This week the District of Columbia Council gave initial approval to Sunday liquor sales, a convenience that Americans in most jurisdictions take for granted. When I lived in Fairfax, Virginia, the District was the place with relatively liberal alcohol regulations (and lower prices), so it's a bit of a surprise to see it playing catch-up with Virginia, which has allowed Sunday liquor sales since last July (although you still have to buy distilled spirits from state-run stores, as opposed to the private retailers in D.C., because Gov. Bob McDonnell's privatization plans have not gone anywhere so far). Of the six states where I have lived, that makes three (Pennsylvania, New York, and Virginia) where selling liquor on Sunday used to be illegal but is now allowed. It has always been legal in California (which has the added convenience of distilled spirits in grocery stores), and it remains illegal in South Carolina. Judging from the pattern so far, Texas will not legalize Sunday sales until I leave.

Despite their religious roots, laws prohibiting businesses from operating on Sunday have been upheld by the Supreme Court. In the 1961 case McGowan v. Maryland, the Court rejected an Establishment Clause challenge to a state law prohibiting the sale of most merchandise on Sunday. While such laws may originally have been aimed at honoring the Christian Sabbath and encouraging church attendance, the Court said, they also can be justified on secular grounds, such as the desire to prevent people from working too much. Notably, liquor store owners often oppose laws allowing Sunday sales, complaining that competition will compel them to open their businesses when they would rather keep them closed.

Although constitutional challenges to Sunday closing laws have not been successful, such restrictions have steadily dwindled over the years in response to changing social and economic circumstances. Liquor sales are a lagging indicator of this trend. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a dozen states still prohibit liquor sales on Sunday: Alabama, Indiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia.* Of the remaining 38, 16 allow local governments to ban Sunday sales, and four restrict Sunday sales (by state-run stores) to certain areas. In the last decade, 16 states (now plus D.C.) have lifted their bans.

[*Corrected: I mistakenly included New Mexico, a local-option state, and left out West Virginia, where Sunday sales are banned statewide.]