Freedom of Religion – Part 4

Church Law and Tax 1989-03-01 Recent Developments Freedom of Religion Richard R. Hammar, J.D., LL.M.,

Church Law and Tax 1989-03-01 Recent Developments

Freedom of Religion

The Virginia Supreme Court ruled that a state Sunday closing law violated the Virginia Constitution’s prohibition against “special laws.” Virginia enacted its first Sunday closing law in 1610. During the colonial period, this law had a religious purposes, requiring every person “to repair in the morning to the divine service.” During the Revolutionary War, in 1779, a Sunday closing law was substituted that had an entirely “secular” purpose—to “prevent the physical and moral debasement which comes from uninterrupted labor.” The 1779 law survived until 1960, when the state legislature enacted a new law. In 1974, the legislature completely rewrote the Sunday closing law. The 1974 law generally prohibited commercial establishments to do business on Sunday, but exempted more than 60 “industries and businesses” from the prohibition, and permitted cities and counties to exempt themselves entirely from the law by a referendum vote. These exemptions left only about 20% of the Virginia workers subject to the law. Under these facts, the state supreme court concluded that the 1974 law violated a provision in the Virginia Constitution prohibiting “special laws” exempting private companies from the reach of any general law unless the exemption bore “a reasonable and substantial relation to the object sought to be accomplished by the legislation.” The court noted that the purpose of the law was to provide the people of Virginia with a common day of rest, and concluded that the exemption of 80% of the business and employees in the state from the reach of the Sunday closing law clearly indicated that the many exemptions did not bear a reasonable relationship to the object sought to be accomplished by the law. Accordingly, the law violated the ban on special legislation. The court further held that the Virginia law did not violate the United States Constitution’s guaranty of the “equal protection of the laws,” since such a standard was more easily satisfied than the state constitution’s “special laws” provision. Accordingly, other states will not be able to rely on the Virginia court’s decision unless their state constitutions contain a similar ban on special legislation. Benderson Development Co. v. Sciortino, 372 S.E.2d 751 (Va. 1988).

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