FARMINGTON — 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: Sunday 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.

As far back as 1903, Lewiston Police Chief Marshall Wing’s attempts 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. For by 1961, many of the laws against Sunday retail sales were still being flouted 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. That changed when such out-of-state chains as Mammoth Mart and Zayres came to Portland just as the l950s turned into the l960s.

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.

Confronted with the new legislation that put teeth into the law, the large retailers (smaller ones were exempt) 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 in a referendum passed by a narrow majority.

But the early 1960s witnessed a regime where large retailers shut down on Sunday, all, that is, except for Portland car dealer Cliff Libby.

For 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 instead. 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 beliefs, 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 Cliff 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 Jews 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 down Saturdays and open on Sundays. Among them: the 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 writer 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 LePage’s pro-business impetus help give car dealers the same seven-day non-stop 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 sales personnel.

 

– Special to The Press Herald