No, the ban on Sunday alcohol sales isn’t a prohibition era holdover

With Sunday sales of alcohol on the verge of being legal in Indiana, some reports claim that the ban dates back to the repeal of prohibition in 1933. Contrary to popular belief, though, it isn’t just an anachronistic holdover from the prohibition era, but actually dates back to the General Assembly’s first session.

When the First General Assembly met in Corydon in 1816 and 1817, they began establishing the legal code for their new state. Many of the new laws were simply borrowed from the laws that governed the Indiana Territory, and the larger Northwest Territory from which it came (and those, in turn, borrowed from colonial law in New England established in the 1600’s, and English law dating back to the 1400’s). Among those was a type of law common to most states and territories at the time called a “closing law.” This type of law required businesses to be closed on the Sabbath (with few exceptions) because of its status as a religious day of rest. In addition to prohibiting “common labor” on the Sabbath, Indiana’s closing law also prohibited the sale of alcohol to Hoosiers on Sundays–though it was initially legal to sell it to out-of-state travelers who happened to be passing through on that day. This closing law withstood several court challenges over the course of state history, until the legislature finally decided to repeal it in 1977, allowing most businesses to be open on Sundays.

So this begs the question: Why couldn’t alcohol be sold on Sundays when the General Assembly finally allowed other commerce to happen on the Sabbath? Again, we have to go back to the first General Assembly. Apart from the closing law, the legislature would also establish a rudimentary liquor licensing system that required getting a requisite number of signatures from landowners in the local area. Unlike the closing law, the liquor licensing and distribution system was frequently tweaked, and continued to grow along with the state. By 1828, landowners could approve new liquor licenses, but they also gained the ability to remonstrate and take a license away. By the early 1840’s, the power shifted from landowners to county governments, which could hold a referendum to prohibit the sale of alcohol anywhere in their county by majority vote (known as the “local option”).

A confluence of events led to major reforms to Indiana’s alcohol laws in the 1850’s that helped set the stage for the current debate:  In 1851, the state adopted a new constitution and began to better organize the state government and legal code, including a more coherent set of alcohol laws. In 1852, the General Assembly removed the Sunday alcohol sales ban from the closing law, moving it to another section of the code with other alcohol related laws (such as a prohibition on selling to minors). In 1853, the Supreme Court ruled that the “local option” was unconstitutional. In 1854, the temperance movement was large enough to capitalize on the Supreme Court ruling and won control of the legislature; in 1855 they would enact a statewide prohibition; this was short-lived, however, as the courts ruled most of it unconstitutional that same year. The prohibition law was fully repealed in 1858, and it’s in place was put a more robust licensing system that gave the state more control over alcohol.

While the legislature has constantly tweaked the licensing rules, the basic structure has remained in place since 1858, with one obvious exception: Prohibition. Indiana actually enacted its own (second) period of prohibition in 1917, a few years ahead of the federal prohibition. When both the state and federal governments deemed it a failed experiment in 1933, Indiana essentially reverted to many of it’s previous alcohol laws, including the Sunday alcohol sales ban. What did change, however, is that the state established the Alcoholic Beverage Commission (ABC) to exercise even more control of the importing and distribution of alcohol, and all associated licenses. In it’s infancy, the ABC was about more than just state government control; it was about political control, and the regional licensing units were an important tool of political patronage. As political appointees looked for more ways to squeeze money out of the system, they created multiple types of licenses and various restrictions; if you wanted to sell cold beer, for instance, that would require a special type of license that cost more.

So while many trace that Sunday sales ban back to the prohibition era, it actually goes back to our first days of statehood and that original Sabbath law. The repeal of that law in 1977 certainly made the Sunday sales ban look more out of place, but by then the system of state control over alcohol was so convoluted that many things seemed to be out of place, like regulating beer sales on temperature, basing restaurant liquor licenses on the type and amount of food they sold, and so on. So when you buy your beer during your Sunday grocery shopping, and wonder why you can’t get it cold, now at least you’ll know why legislative leaders had to set up a special commission to start unwinding our arcane licensing rules. Cheers.

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