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Playing chicken with the Lord’s Day

Text, tradition, and the light of nature tell us that New York is wrong to force Chick-fil-A to open on Sundays


A Chick-fil-A restaurant in New York, N.Y. Associated Press/Photo by Mark Lennihan

Playing chicken with the Lord’s Day
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More than once in the late 19th century, the New York Court of Appeals upheld Sunday restrictions on economic activity. Per that court, it was doing nothing more than expressing the national consensus at the time—a slew of cases could be cited given the ubiquity of such laws in America up through the 20th century. People v. Moses (1893) declared,

The Christian Sabbath is one of the civil institutions of the state, and that the legislature for the purpose of promoting the moral and physical well-being of the people and the peace, quiet and good order of society, has authority to regulate its observance and prevent its desecration by any appropriate legislation is unquestioned.

Similarly, the court in People v. Havnor (1896) explained that,

ordinary business of life shall be suspended on Sunday, in order that thereby the physical and moral well-being of the people may be advanced. The inconvenience to some is not regarded as an argument against the constitutionality of the statute, as that is an incident to all general laws.

We live in a different world now, one that does not conceive of human wellbeing holistically, or even historically. Rest, physical and spiritual, is rarely the object of marquee legislative agendas. As the wall of separation has risen ever higher between church and state, the body and soul have been split ever further apart. The interrelated health of the complete human being is no longer publicly cognizable.

But this wasn’t always the case. In various ways, a day of rest used to be protected, thereby championing two foundational elements of the American system, namely, Christianity and the working class.

No longer. The last statewide blue laws were repealed in North Dakota in 2019. Only a few places, like Bergen County, New Jersey have maintained Sunday restrictions on retail. Some states still limit alcohol sales. Overall, the pendulum has aggressively swung in the opposite direction. Businesses aren’t merely free to choose which days of the week they will open. Today, state governments are beginning to actively force economic activity on the Sabbath. Such is the one-way ratchet of economic liberalism.

In December, New York lawmakers introduced a bill that would require all restaurants operating at rest stops on the Thruway, the state highway system, to be open seven days a week. Chick-fil-A, famous for its Christian ownership and closure on Sunday, has restaurants at nine, and soon to be 10, of the 27 rest stop locations in the state. Chick-fil-A’s longstanding Sunday closure policy is explicitly intended to allow workers to worship and rest—the same rationale for bygone American Sabbath laws. Even skeptics are sympathetic to the idea. 

If we are not, as a nation, going to honor the Sabbath at scale, protecting workers at the same time, might we at least allow conscientious employers to do so on their own initiative?

The bill’s Democrat sponsor, Assemblymember Tony Simone, denied that the proposed policy targeted Chick-fil-a because, of course, it applies to all Thruway establishments. Consumer choice was Simone’ stated rationale. If you want chicken on Sunday, why shouldn’t you have it? To be clear, the bill, if enacted, would only apply to future contracts for food concessions at transportation facilities owned by the state and the port authority of New York and New Jersey.

Playing chicken with the created order never ends well for societies. The French famously proved this. Science begrudgingly confirms the need for a weekly day apart from work. If we are not, as a nation, going to honor the Sabbath at scale, protecting workers at the same time, might we at least allow conscientious employers to do so on their own initiative? An astute observer might adopt Chick-fil-a’s one-in-seven model given its success.

Moreover, observers don’t have to be Sabbatarians to see what is going on here. Chick-fil-a has been the subject of myriad campaigns over the past several years, whether in airports or on college campuses, aimed at limiting its expansion. This time is no exception.

The bill’s sponsor explicitly cited Chick-fil-a’s insufficient adherence to the cult of LGBTQ. Forcing the notoriously Christian company to violate its own holy day and deity seems like a proportionate punishment for such nonconformity, no?

Only three years ago, several New York state legislators urged the Thruway Authority to “reexamine” the approval of Chick-fil-A to open locations along the highway system, citing the company’s stance against same-sex marriage. Chick-fil-A was on notice, as it were.

Were the new law to be legally challenged, there is some cause for optimism. Last term, in Geoff v. DeJoy (2023), the Supreme Court ruled in favor of an evangelical postal worker who refused to work on Sundays, making it clear that employers must accommodate religious beliefs extending to practice. But this only so long as said practice does not unduly burden the employer. The New York Chick-fil-A scenario presents a different and admittedly premature question. That said, it’s not clear that the consumer choice rationale of Simone’s bill would clear the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014) hurdle.

In any case, were it 1850 or even 1920, however, the answer would be simple and not so “ridiculous” as Simone claims. No business can be forced to operate on Sunday because no business should operate on Sunday. Why? Because text, tradition, and the very light of nature—that which no just law can contradict—tell us so. A one-in-seven rest is good for the soul as it is good for the body. If that historical, social good is not going to be any longer protected by American legislatures, surely American companies should not be forced to violate it.


Timon Cline

Timon Cline is an attorney, associate editor of American Reformer, and a fellow at the Craig Center at Westminster Theological Seminary. His writing can be found at The American Conservative, Modern Reformation, and American Mind, among others.


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