Opponents of Bergen County’s blue laws held their collective breaths last week as a state senator introduced a bill they hoped would weaken Sunday shopping restrictions. But that legislator’s office has made clear that he has no intention of striking the centuries-old legislation.
State Sen. Paul Sarlo’s Bill 1”’ would allow municipalities to open stores in specific areas on one Sunday of the year, during a street fair. The bill is a response to Hackensack officials who wanted to promote small businesses by allowing them to open during a street fair this summer. The stores allowed to open would be limited to those near the fair and would still have to receive municipal approval.
"Sen. Sarlo supports the blue laws because they protect the quality of life for residents of communities that are impacted by shopping malls," said Chris Eilert, Sarlo’s chief of staff, in a phone interview Tuesday. "He feels that one day a year is adequate for the purpose of holding a public event."
With five shopping malls, Paramus is the densest shopping area in the country. Many Paramus residents prize the blue laws for limiting traffic, while would-be shoppers may prefer the malls to be open all week.
Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer, a columnist for this newspaper and president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, said that while he understands the reasoning behind the blue laws, they actually impose a restriction on Shabbat-observant Jews and force them to adhere to another religion’s Sabbath.
"People do want their peace and quiet," he said. "They have a right to their peace and quiet, but other people have a right to shop."
Part of the problem, he said, is that many stores hold large weekend sales. But those sales are available to Bergen shoppers only on Saturdays, when Shabbat-observant citizens cannot take advantage of them. As important as Sunday is for Christians, Engelmayer said, they are not forbidden from shopping on their Sabbath as Jews are.
"It’s my only day off," Engelmayer said of Sundays. "They have two days off because they can travel and do all the things they want to do [on Sunday]. I can’t do that [on Shabbat] and they’re cutting that day off for me because I’m not part of the majority."
Asked about Bergen’s large Shabbat-observant population, Eilert said the laws were not discriminatory.
"We’re very sympathetic to those people who, due to their religious beliefs, are restricted from shopping on Saturdays," he said. "But by the same token we are respectful of the blue laws as they exist in Bergen County."
Eilert added that if controversy around the Sarlo bill continues, the senator will drop it.
Still, Engelmayer and other blue law opponents were hopeful that this legislation could be a beginning step toward loosening the laws. However, such attempts have failed in the past.
During the summer of ‘006, Teaneck Mayor Elie Katz tried to push forward a referendum to permit the township to opt out of observing the blue laws. He dropped the pursuit in the face of legal concerns, as only the state legislature can change to the law. Sarlo’s bill, he said, could be the start of something, though.
"It’s a step in the right direction," he said Monday. "I wish Sen. Sarlo’s office staff good luck over the next couple of weeks, as there are many organized groups that, unfortunately, will be against any change in the blue laws’ restrictions."
In ’00’, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg tried to advance a bill to allow individual communities to decide on enforcing the laws. However, that effort met with such opposition that she soon abandoned the bill. Her office received thousands of e-mails and voicemails largely from residents of Paramus and its surrounding communities, in support of maintaining the blue laws.
Because of the legislative budget break, discussion on the bill will not begin until at least May.