2/23/09

How to Strengthen Mississippi's Economy: Abolish Blue Laws

Map of MississippiImage via Wikipedia

Atheists who want a strong reality-based system of public education should take an interest in our state's economy. After all, Mississippi has made it clear that funding public education is a low priority and that cuts will take place each time the economy falters. Atheists should also be interested in religiously-motivated obstacles to the economy such as "blue laws" and dry counties. Several states are now considering abolishing blue laws to boost their economies. Will Mississippi follow suit, or will we once again flaunt our ignorance and the strength of our religious delusion?

Blue Laws and Dry Counties

So called "blue laws" are on the books in many states. These laws restrict certain types of business activity on Sundays out of some misguided attempt to make the day "holy." Had the fiscally conservative Republicans not sold their proverbial souls to the religious right, one would expect them to be the most vocal source of opposition to these antiquated measures. After all, blue laws do indeed restrict commerce and hurt the economic bottom line.

And the whole dry county phenomenon is an even more blatant example of this. I live in a dry county, and each time opponents of this particular law bring it for a vote, the sides are the same. Those seeking to overturn the dry county law are small business owners. They see how their inability to sell alcohol hurts their businesses. Churches, especially Southern Baptist churches, are on the other side. They are not concerned with the plight of the small business owner; they are interested in preaching about the evils of alcohol.

This has to be a fairly schizophrenic experience for many Republicans. On one hand, they see small business owners hurting over unnecessary regulation without benefit. On the other hand, the base of the party (i.e., evangelical Christians) is willing to sacrifice the business owners for a "higher purpose." I do not envy those caught in the middle.

Boosting the Economy

In case it is not already obvious, abolishing blue laws and repealing the various dry county laws would provide a significant boost to the local and state economy. Greater shopping flexibility would mean more money coming in, including additional tax revenue. Permitting small business owners to sell alcohol on their premises would make them more competitive and prevent people from simply driving to the neighboring county with their business.

The best part of this plan for benefiting the economy is that there is no downside. Since the only reasons to maintain these restrictive laws are religious, there are no losers in such a plan.

Other states are beginning to take a close look at their blue laws and consider how they affect business. I hope that dry counties will soon follow. In many areas, public attitudes among voters are changing to support abolishing these restrictions. It is too early to tell whether Mississippi is capable of crawling out from under the thumb of religious influence long enough to do so.

A Role for Mississippi Atheists

I think that we can be a force for change on these issues, but we must be careful not to alienate potential allies in the religious community. This is probably not the optimal time to make the issue one of religion. In our current economic climate, the most effective arguments will likely be those that emphasize the economic costs of doing nothing and the economic benefits of abolishing such laws. Churches will certainly use religion in their opposition, but I think we have the best chance of making an impact by keeping the focus on economics.

In addition to keeping the focus on the economic costs and benefits rather than focusing on religion, I suggest that we remember that this is about more than alcohol. I can use myself as an example here because I do not drink alcohol. I am not going to support these sorts of changes in the law because I think more people should have easier access to alcohol. Rather, I am going to support them because I think that these unnecessary restrictions harm our state economy and create undue hardship for small business owners.

For such initiatives to be effective, we will need allies who are religious as well as those who are not interested in alcohol consumption. If we can accomplish that, I'm not sure there has ever been a better chance of success.

H/T to Friendly Atheist