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Over clergy's protests, many states repealing Sunday closing laws

Another once solid bastion of Puritan influence is crumbling. For the first time in nearly two centuries, most retail stores in Massachusetts will be allowed to open for business Sundays year-round, starting March 27, Palm Sunday.

The controversial repeal of the state's so-called blue laws, signed last Christmas Eve by then Gov. Edward J. King, makes the commonwealth the seventh state in the past decade to do so. Similar efforts, either through legislation or litigation, are afoot in more than a half dozen others.

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Attempts to reinstate blue laws that were repealed or held unconstitutional are under way in a few states, notes Pamela Allen of the Association of Retail General Merchandise Chains. But they are the exception.

While most states continue some restrictions on Sunday commercial activities, the District of Columbia and 39 states, including Massachusetts, permit them, at least on a local-option basis. All but one of the remaining 11 are South or Plains states.

In Maine, the only New England state with a Sunday closing law still in effect, pending legislation would relax the ban to allow stores of all sizes to do business on the four Sundays between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Critics view the measure, similar to one in effect in Massachusetts for the past six years, as ''a foot in door'' toward seven-day-a-week store openings. ''This is not the intent, and there simply is no strong sentiment for it,'' asserts Robie Liscomb, executive vice-president of the Maine Merchants Association.

Unlike Sunday business restrictions in several other states, including Arkansas, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont, the Maine Sunday closing law has successfully weathered a court challenge.

Vermont's blue law was struck down as discriminatory last year after legislators, under pressure from retail chains, watered it down to exempt medium-sized stores.

Boosters of Sunday openings like Massachusetts Democratic state Rep. Timothy Bassett, contend that ''many people find it inconvenient or impossible to do their shopping on Saturdays or even during the week.''

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The big push for such legislation, however, has come largely from the retail sector, especially some of the larger chains. Support also comes from merchants in border communities who are in direct competition with stores in neighboring states where seven-day-a-week operations are allowed.

Opponents of such measures, like Dr. Myron Fowell, program director of the Massachusetts Churchmen's League, maintain that ''a common day of rest is needed'' and there are ''plenty of hours to shop during the week and in evenings.''

Warnings from Protestant and Roman Catholic clergy that Sunday store openings would have an adverse impact on family life failed to sway either Bay State lawmakers or Governor King, who termed his decision one of the toughest of his four years in office.

Contributing to passage of the measure was the support of organized labor, which in the past opposed it because of concerns that some of its members might be forced to work against their will on Sunday.

To allay such fears and lessen opposition from other directions, sponsors of the legislation specified that those who work on Sunday should receive time-and-a-half pay and nobody refusing Sunday duty could be fired or otherwise punished.

Except for so-called ''mom and pop'' or convenience stores and drugstores, which will continue to open seven days a week, Massachusetts retailers cannot open before noon on Sundays. Still closed, as in many other states, will be package liquor stores.

Sponsors of the change forecast that it will net the commonwealth $40 million in additional tax revenue. State revenue department officials, however, anticipate the yield may be considerably smaller.

Critics of the new law warn that it will not appreciably increase sales volume for retailers and for many it will only boost operating expenses.

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