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More sales, less service: Expansion of liquor store Sunday hours is latest threat to church attendance

July 20, 2013

Liquor stores in Rhode Island get an additional two hours of selling time this morning, and this latest commercial encroachment has some members of the clergy wondering if Sunday is losing the reverence as a religious day it has long held in these parts.

The change approved by the General Assembly in its recent session and signed a week ago by Gov. Lincoln Chafee allows liquor stores to move up their opening times from noon to 10 a.m., a change some hope will give the businesses a sales advantage over their Massachusetts competitors.

Massachusetts stores still open at noon but there is also talk of moving that time up among Bay State legislators.

Massachusetts in 2011 eliminated its sales tax on all alcoholic beverages as an incentive to bring more customers to its business. The General Assembly responded in turn while setting the current state budget by implementing a trial program of waiving the state’s sales tax on wine and spirits for a period of 16 months.

The liquor store hours change is the most recent of several legislative moves around New England and other parts of the country to lessen or eliminate the so-called Sunday blue laws that date back to colonial days, when communities composed of religiously strict Puritans enacted laws to ensure that “the Lord’s Day” was reserved for worship.

When the Puritans arrived in Massachusetts, they spent most of Sunday in church services and prohibited work and other activities from interrupting the day of preaching, rest and reflection.

The weakening of the longstanding traditions of Sunday as a day for Christian religious services and rest came with moves to allow retail stores to open on Sundays, and eventually liquor stores and Sunday sales at car dealerships.

Woonsocket State Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, D-Dist. 49, said she has never heard opposition to the bypassing of Blue Law intentions even though the changes did require some people to work on a day they might otherwise have off.

Overall, the changes have helped businesses be more profitable and more competitive and in this economy that is an important concern, according to Baldelli-Hunt.

“We hear from a larger community when with comes to things like car sales or buying gasoline over the line in Massachusetts,” Baldelli-Hunt said while explaining there are many areas where competitive pricing and access for purchasing come into play.

On the religious side, area pastors pointed out its not just the Sunday sales of alcoholic beverages that is taking away the focus on keeping Sunday a day of reflection and religious commitment but also a move to a more secular, non-religious approach to the day in many aspects of life.

The Rev. Edward St. Godard, pastor of Holy Family Church on South Main Street in Woonsocket, sees the earlier opening as just another indication that Sunday is being viewed less and less as a religious day and more and more as a day to do things people can’t get to during the work week.

The earlier opening of a liquor store may prompt someone to miss a religious service if that is important to them, but Rev. St. Godard, approaching his 50th anniversary as a priest next year, said there are many other reasons people choose to miss church today that have nothing to do with stopping at a store.

“In my priesthood, the biggest concern I have is over youth sports being held on Sunday,” he said.

When youth athletic leagues schedule games on Sunday as many are now doing, that forces a child to make a choice between playing the game or going to church, Rev. St. Godard said.

“It makes it harder for that child to be spiritual,” he said. The increase in youth sports activities and the demands for people to work or shop on Sunday, results in a “lack of commitment to religion,”

Rev. St. Godard said.

Local Catholic parishes see the results of non-religious Sunday activities when an altar server calls to say they can’t keep their commitment for a mass because they have to go to an athletic event, he said.

When the country was founded that could never have happened because the Puritans believed the Lord’s Sabbath should be kept and that meant showing up for a church service even if it would last several hours, Rev. St. Godard said. Rev. St. Godard said he has studied those times with interest since one of his ancestors was Samuel Skelton, the first Puritan minister of Salem, Mass. Skelton, St. Godard noted, was eventually replaced by Roger Williams, the founder of Providence Plantations, who brought his own focus on religion to this state.

Rev. St. Godard said that despite the move away from a religious Sunday, he still believes people need a day to do things differently than they do on the other days of the week.

“We need to mediate, we need time to look within ourselves to find that inner space that is religion,” he said.

The Rev. Michael J. Woolley, pastor of St. Joseph’s Church, Mendon Road, Woonsocket, also pointed to the encroachment of sports into Sunday observances to be as much of a concern as the addition of two hours to the sales time for liquor stores.
“All the time I hear kids say `I can’t get to church because I’ve got to go to a hockey game,” Woolley said.

Given that Sunday worship services are typically held by many American church organizations between 8 to 9 a.m. or 11 a.m. to 12 p.m., you would think there is a way to keep those hours free of things like youth sports activities, according to Woolley.

“Sports are good for helping to develop a young person but religion is important, too,” he said.

It may be that the country is moving toward a secular approach for its traditional day of rest, but Woolley said the argument can also be made that there is a need today for a religious Sunday in an ever more demanding world.

“As far as Catholics go, we feel we should try to keep Sunday as a day for prayer and family gatherings,” he said.

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