Braunfeld v. Brown: Summary & Facts

Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet
The First Amendment protects us from our government setting up or favoring a religion. In this lesson, we will see if that extends to laws regulating local commerce.

A Day of Rest

Imagine that a new law says that you have to close your shop on Sunday. Apparently, it's a day of rest for religious reasons. But what if you're not religious? You have to close and lose money so others can worship. Is this fair? Is it constitutional? The Supreme Court addressed these questions in Braunfeld v. Brown (1961).

Facts of the Case

Braunfeld and other members of the Jewish Orthodox Faith sued in Federal District Court to have a Pennsylvania Law overturned. The law made it a crime for certain retailers to sell goods on Sunday. The plaintiffs were also retailers who sold items affected by the law, but as members of the Jewish faith, they are unable to sell or do any work from Friday nightfall to Saturday nightfall every week.

This put them at a substantial disadvantage with other competitors as now they were closed from Friday at night through Sunday. The district court ruled that the law did not violate Braunfeld's 1st and 14th Amendment rights, so Braunfield and the other plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Historical Background

The 14th Amendment extended many of the fundamental rights found in the Constitution to the states. This meant that the federal courts could now enforce state government violations of citizens' rights. The amendment contains the equal protection clause, which requires that state governments treat their citizens equally under the law. This essentially outlawed discrimination based on race, national origin, and religion.

The First Amendment's free exercise clause prohibits the state from infringing on one's right to worship as they choose. The First Amendment also contains the establishment clause, which prohibits the government from establishing a religion. Over the years, the Supreme Court has determined that this means that the state can't set up a religion or give aid to a religion or favor one over the other.

For example, in Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), the Supreme Court ruled that a public school can't hold a school-sponsored Bible reading during school time. The Court held that the reading aided and supported a religion and favored one over the other by only reading from the Christian Bible.

The Pennsylvania statute at issue is a blue law, which are laws that prohibit certain economic activity on Sundays. If the reason for the statute was to support a particular religion, then the law clearly violates the establishment clause. However, in Two Guys v. McGinley (1961), the Supreme Court held that if he law had a secular purpose and did not have the effect of supporting a religion, it did not violate the establishment clause.

Issue and Decision

The Supreme Court was asked whether Pennsylvania's law prohibiting the sale of certain goods on Sunday violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment or the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The Court held that the law did not violate either.

The Court acknowledged that laws will often clash with religious beliefs and it is the job of the courts to determine where the balance lies. The Court said, '' In such cases, to make accommodation between the religious action and an exercise of state authority is a particularly delicate task because resolution in favor of the State results in the choice to the individual of either abandoning his religious principle or facing criminal prosecution.''

However, that alone does not render a law invalid. The purpose and the effect of the law must be examined. The Court reasoned that the law banning commercial activity on Sunday provided a benefit to the health, safety, and welfare of the people by creating a day of rest and tranquility by producing an atmosphere of calm and relaxation rather than one of commercialism. This gave the law a secular purpose which did not support a particular religion as it applied to all businesses regardless of religion.

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