Free Market

Thou Shalt Not Sell Vehicles on the Sabbath

Controversy erupted in Utah County last fall as citizens in Highland, Utah, attempted (and succeeded) to overturn an action by their city’s council to allow all businesses to operate on Sundays. Previously, certain (but not all) businesses were required to shut down on the Sabbath, and the council changed the ordinance. Many citizens did not like this, and they narrowly defeated their dissenting neighbors to re-impose the ban. For more background, see articles here and here, this essay, or this cartoon.

Proponents of this Sunday business ban were quite vocal in affirming that a municipality somehow has the right to determine how best to shape the community through law, and to preserve the “day of rest” and “community feel,” the ordinance was important and necessary. Local control allowed for this option, they argued. What, then, would such persons say regarding a similar law at the state level?

In 2000, Larry H. Miller heavily lobbied for a change in Utah law to protect his car dealerships from national competition. The national chains usually operate on each day of the week, and Miller did not operate his dealerships on Sunday. (The same does not hold true for his Megaplex movie theaters.)

A bill sponsored by Senator Paula Julander changed the law such that a dealership or car salesman “may not, on consecutive days of Saturday and Sunday, sell, offer for sale, lease, or offer for lease a motor vehicle.” (Instead of having a Mormon Republican sponsor this bill, Miller and other proponents chose to have a non-Mormon Democrat do it—presumably to minimize the perception of theocracy.) Rather than simply banning car dealerships from opening on the Sabbath, the legislature was so gracious as to offer a choice: be open either on Saturday or Sunday, but not both. It is not obvious which one each dealership chose, nor why this language was created to be as crafty as it is.

Violating this prohibition is a class B misdemeanor and would result in over $50,000 in annual fines were a dealership to remain open on both days year-round. Of course, few dealerships (if any) are interested in violating this protectionist policy; Libertas Institute contacted over a dozen dealerships and those who responded liked the law, without exception. “Retail industry is hard work!” one dealer told us. “So one day should be taken off. Naturally, it should be Sunday.” Another said that “working six days per week is plenty,” noting that Sunday is the best day to take off “so people can go to church that day.”

Another dealer involved in the 2000 law change noted that “that’s the reason we put it that way, so we can close on Sunday. With me, the religious factor is number one, but number two, it’s hard to manage a family when it’s a seven-day-a-week deal.” When asked about a possible modification to the law, the Executive Communications Director of Larry H. Miller’s dealerships, Linda Luchetti, said “it’s been a law so long, I don’t think we have a comment on that.”

Of course, it is important to take breaks from work and spend time with family, attend church, participate in other associations, etc. This is not in dispute. What is in dispute is whether the government has any legitimate role in enforcing these things under penalty of fines and jail time. Despite the arguments used by those who prefer the status quo, this law is not simply about allowing car dealers and salesmen to take a day off. It is about economic protectionism—discouraging competition by using the law to favor one’s own industry at the expense of others who might wish to operate their business differently.

Additionally problematic is the portion of code which prohibits the mere “offer” of sale (presumably) on Sunday. An offer is a verbal agreement, part of speech, and thus certain forms of conversation are being criminalized by the state in its pursuit to impose by statute the commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy. While we suspect that it would be difficult for this entire prohibition to withstand legal scrutiny if challenged in court, it is likely that the provision banning an “offer” would be particularly troublesome for the state to defend.

Despite their competition being open on Sundays, such businesses as Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-A close on Sunday, and yet their businesses thrive. Rather than seeking to employ the arm of the state to enforce such desires as part of a protectionist economic scheme, businessmen in Utah should learn from these examples and voluntarily adhere to a day of rest.

If Utah legislators are in fact supporters of a “free market” as many of them claim on the campaign trail, we hope to see this policy addressed and corrected in the near future.