December 18, 2017
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Why Maine makes most stores close on Thanksgiving but not others

By Darren Fishell, BDN Staff
Updated:
John Van Decker | Alamy Stock Photo | BDN
John Van Decker | Alamy Stock Photo | BDN
The classic L.L. Bean boot greets visitors at an entrance to its flagship store. The company was founded in Freeport more than a century ago.

Once again, Maine’s historically religious Blue Law will ban large retailers from opening on Thanksgiving Day, preventing many stores from meeting demand for last-minute food shopping or opening early for Black Friday sales.

Multiple efforts in the Legislature have sought to amend restrictions on smaller grocers and other retailers, including at the insistence of markets in Holden and Searsport, but to no avail.

Gov. Paul LePage in May vetoed the latest legislative attempt to chip away at Maine’s blue law, arguing lawmakers did not go far enough, writing they should “stop granting piecemeal carve-outs” and “allow all Maine businesses the opportunity to decide whether to be open when and how they see fit based on market demand.”

The law has a raft of exemptions, including for stores with fewer than five employees and for stores with fewer than 5,000 square feet of interior selling space. Convenience stores selling last-minute staples are allowed to be open, if you’re in a pinch.

The perpetually open L.L. Bean is perhaps the most notable exception. The store, which for decades has remained open 24 hours per day, has claimed an unchallenged exemption from the rule. The law also has a special exemption for “establishments primarily selling boats, boating equipment, sporting equipment, souvenirs and novelties.”

Those exemptions didn’t crop up overnight. Lawmakers for years have added to the law that began as a way to preserve family time and recreation on holidays and Sundays — identified in state law as the “Lord’s Day” until 1985.

That’s put the law in the crosshairs of various legal challenges. An attempted takedown of the state’s right to even have such a law, with such broad exemptions, failed in 2002.

In that year, a federal judge dismissed a complaint by a Kittery motorcycle seller that sued the state, arguing it was unfair and unconstitutional for Maine to group and restrict its business along with car sales, which are prohibited on Sundays. The dealer argued its business was more appropriately grouped with sales of recreational vehicles, such as boats, ATVs and snowmobiles, which can be sold on Sundays.

In the 2002 decision, U.S. District Court Judge D. Brock Hornby writes that the original purpose of those Sunday closures came from Christian doctrine.

“But over the years, with changing social mores, legislatures have allowed many exceptions, and no longer is the legislation defended or attacked on religious bases,” Hornby wrote. “Instead, it has come to be recognized as serving a secular purpose in contemporary society.”

And that purpose, he wrote, is “preserving a day when family members are free of work and can be together, yet allowing them to spend that time recreating, and therefore allowing many services and products to be reasonably accessible, i.e., through vendors open for business.”

In the decision, Hornby wrote that the collection of exemptions in the law was illogical, describing the list as “a patchwork quilt of accommodations sewn together over the years.”

But that’s within the Legislature’s right.

“The resulting list of what can be done on Sunday and by whom is not logical, but it does not have to be,” Hornby wrote.

“The statutory scheme is illogical, but not unconstitutional,” he concluded.

The legislative record gives some insight into the law’s evolution.

The revisions start in 1971, when “public dancing” was added as a permissible business activity on Sundays. In 1973, mobile home sellers got the all clear for Lord’s Day sales, as did the inanimate “machines that vend anything of value, including, but not limited to, a product, money or service.” Pharmacies and drug stores got the OK, too.

In 1977, it was bowling alleys. In 1981, it was the rather obscure “satellite facility approved by the Superintendent of the Bureau of Banking … or comparable facility approved by the appropriate federal authority.” The bureau is now called the Bureau of Financial Institutions.

Then, only through the will of 52.5 percent of the state’s voters, retailers with fewer than 5,000 square feet of interior space got the ability to open Sundays and holidays, in a 1990 referendum.

This is an update to a story originally published Nov. 20, 2016.

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