August 22, 1895
IF anything had been lacking to illustrate fully the absurdity of Sunday legislation, it would be supplied by current events in this city.
New York has a very voluminous Sunday law, comprising, all told, about 2,200 words, and the possibilities bound up in it are immense. The most recent addition to the Sunday Code of the State, is a section prohibiting barbering on Sunday, except in New York and Saratoga, and also in these cities after one o’clock, P.M., on that day.
Some of the decisions under the Sunday statute of the State are specially worthy of note in this connection.
In 1811, Judge Kent said that “the statute has, for over a century, recognized the sanctity and the obligation [of Sunday], and punished its violators.” While in the case of Campbell vs. International Society (4 Box., New York, 298), we are told that the statute “explicitly recognizes the first day of the week as holy time, and thus it has brought us back to the full and large and absolute rule of interdiction which we find provided in the earliest laws of Christian States, and which the construction of the statute of Charles II. has tended somewhat to narrow and impair.” Again, in 12, New York, 455, the question is asked, “Is it not obvious that by reason of keeping a store open for business, a temptation is presented to those who have no regard for Sunday as holy time to violate the law?” Again, Judge Allen, of New York, held in 1861 that “the law of the State conforms to the law of God as that law is recognized by a great majority of the people.”
These authorities might be multiplied, but they are sufficient to show the purpose and intent of the Sunday statutes of New York. That they rest upon a distinctively religious basis, is beyond question; but that they utterly fail in this purpose is plainly shown by the manner of their application, as well as by the statutes themselves. The sale of intoxicating liquors is prohibited in general, but is none the less carried on extensively by clubs for the use of members. Thus the law in effect permits the rich man to do on Sunday what it prohibits to the poor man. That this is any great deprivation to the poor man we do not believe, because we think that all are better off without intoxicating drinks; but we very much doubt the wisdom of giving free rein to the liquor traffic six days in the week and of limiting it to wealthy clubs upon Sunday. The only reasons for prohibition that the State ought to consider apply equally to every day; and that they are given weight only in behalf of one day, shows that the restriction is for the purpose of honoring Sunday rather than restricting the liquor traffic.
Shooting, hunting, trapping, and fishing, are prohibited on Sunday, and this section has been so rigidly construed as to extend even to the taking of fish in private ponds. Such a regulation can have only one object, namely the exaltation of the day because of its religious character.
Another section prohibits all labor on Sunday “except works of necessity or charity;” and “works of necessity and charity” are defined as including “whatever is needful during the day for the good order, health, or comfort of the community.” It is also provided that “it shall be a sufficient defense to a prosecution for servile labor upon the first day of the week, that the defendant uniformally keeps another day of the week as holy time.” This latter exemption serves to emphasize the religious character of the statute. All “public sports, exercises, pastimes or shows upon the first day of the week,” are prohibited, but it has been held that “three men playing ball upon Sunday on private grounds” does not constitute a breach of the peace; and only a few months since Judge Gaynor, of Brooklyn, discharged a number of young men, arrested for playing ball on Sunday on a common in the city of Brooklyn, saying that it was no violation of the law.
Section 266 reads:—
All trades, manufacturers, agricultural or mechanical employments upon the first day of the week are prohibited, except when the same are works of necessity they may be performed on that day in their usual and orderly manner, so as not to interfere with the repose and religious liberty of the community.
But the next section provides for the sale of articles of food at any time before 10 o’clock in the morning, and prepared tobacco, fruit, confectionery, newspapers, drugs, medicines, and surgical appliances at any other time of the day.
We have no fault to find with the sale of tobacco, fruit, and confectionery, newspapers, etc., on Sunday more than on other days; but viewed from the standpoint of various decisions that the purpose of the statute is to preserve the sanctity of the day, we can but wonder what kind of sanctity it is that can be preserved by a statute which prohibits all agricultural and mechanical employments, and at the same time permits the sale of tobacco, confectionery, etc.
Another feature which emphasizes the religious character of the Sunday statute of New York, is the prohibition of all parades and processions on Sunday, except funeral processions for the actual burial of the dead, and “processions to and from a place of worship in connection with a religious service there celebrated.”
Another section prohibits theatricals, operas, etc. Doubtless it is this provision which has given rise to the so-called “sacred” concerts, wherein the livery of heaven is made to do service for the devil.
Some of the decisions under the New York Sunday statute are peculiar; for instance, “a contract for the hire of a horse to be used on Sunday for pleasure cannot be enforced;” but “an agreement to make an ascension in a balloon on Sunday from a public garden, is within the statute.” Tobacco, fruit, etc., may be freely sold at any hour of the day, but it is a crime to sell a glass of soda-water, or a paper of pins.
According to this statute, which it has been judicially declared, “is in harmony with the religions of the country and the religious sentiment of the public,” it is wrong to do barbering on Sunday in any place within the limits of New York State, except in the cities of New York and Saratoga, and even here it is right only until one o’clock in the afternoon. According to this “law” it is wrong for an  expressman or drayman to receive or convey or deliver goods on Sunday, but quite right for the railroad companies or steamboats to do the same thing. It is quite right for a man to stand upon the street selling cigars, but wrong for another man, or for anybody else, to sell a pair of shoe-strings either on the street or in a store.
But enough has been given to illustrate not only the absurdity but the immorality of the so-called Sunday laws. Their purpose is declared to be to “protect the sanctity of the sabbath;” but their effect is the very opposite or would be were there any sanctity attached to the day which they are intended to safeguard. Their effect is to turn away the minds of the people from the law of God and center it upon the “law” of the State. They in effect say that the law of God is defective: that its prohibitions are too broad and sweeping, and that it must be changed in order to meet the conditions of modern society. And instead of leaving it to the individual conscience, a thousand absurd and inconsistent prohibitions are adopted, arbitrarily prohibiting one thing and permitting something else, which is neither more necessary nor more moral; hence the conscience is seared as with a hot iron. The individual, instead of asking, “What does the law of God say?” inquires only, What does the law of the State say? and the conscience is eased in committing sin if the act done is within the statute. Thus men are taught to look not to the law of God as a moral standard, but to the “law” of the State; the result is that their morals are no more perfect than is the “law” by which they are regulated.
There has recently been an effort made in this city to enforce the Sunday statutes. This has been carried so far that some dealers have even been afraid to sell soda-water. Only a few weeks ago general notice was served throughout the city that all business must close. The manager of this office was notified to close up, which, however, he refused to do, and has not as yet been molested; but the end is not yet. Bigotry and fanaticism have not yet exhausted themselves, and the Sunday-law crusade has not run its course. Mayor Strong spent a recent Sunday at Asbury Park, N.J., and while there expressed his determination to enforce the “law,” and made special mention of the Sunday statute, which he said would be rigidly enforced; hence interesting developments may be expected in New York City erelong. However, these things only serve to illustrate the absurdity and immorality of Sunday legislation.