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Guarding God’s peace

30 November, 1999

Christine Green looks across the world at a wide range of Church laws on ‘keeping holy the Sabbath Day’.

Sundays just don’t seem the same anymore. Gone are the days when the entire family would don their finest attire and attend their local church for a few hearty renditions of ‘Jesus loves us’ or some other favourite hymn before listening to the Minister deliver his weekly sermon. It is far more common now, with parents in many families working 9-5 each weekday, that Saturday and Sundays are spent catching up on domestic chores, preparing for the week ahead, leaving the children to entertain themselves, which generally means reaching a higher level on the computer console.

So what has happened to the Sabbath, that special family day, the one-day of the week that God intended us to rest? Take a step back in time, delve through the chronicles of yesteryear, when going out or doing anything other than being good Christians and attending church was the norm for a Sunday, and you will be quite surprised, albeit shocked, to read some of the laws that town and county officials sought to authorise to ensure that Sunday remained ‘the day of rest’. Strange, bizarre, mind-boggling, one cannot help but wonder about the significance of banning children in the state of Kansas, USA, from playing ‘Ring around Rosy’ on a Sunday, let alone allowing a chicken to cross the road in the state of Georgia? The following collection of wacky laws have been gathered from various sources around the world and although some are still legally binding they may not be enforced, whilst thankfully some of the more bizarre ones have been repealed.

In Britain it used to be law that every young male aged between 10 and 18 years had to meet up on a Sunday morning at the village green in order to practice archery – no explanation as to why, one can only assume that lawmakers regarded it important for young men to acquire such a skill. And whilst archery was made law in Great Britain, in Scotland, fishing was prohibited on the Sabbath – a piece of legislation doubtless bringing sweet repose to the fish. Whoever said that the British were slightly eccentric obviously failed to consider their fellow allies: in Austria a law was passed banning the wearing of pink pants after midday on a Sunday and in Ontario, Canada, any signs of public affection, even a kiss, were forbidden. Law makers of Switzerland found it necessary to instigate several Sabbath day laws of their own; one of which barred hanging one’s clothes out to dry on a Sunday and another barred the mowing of one’s lawn. This was certainly as a result of the noise of lawn mowers obliterating the sound of the church bells.

There is little doubt that Israel must rank a top place when it comes to the silliest laws – why would anyone ban nose picking? Although totally acceptable the other six days of the week nose picking was regarded illegal on the Sabbath and so prohibited. No mention of the penalties enforced – perhaps nose decapitation! Yet it must be the Americans who hold the record for creating the most weird collection of Sunday laws: in Detroit, Michigan men are not allowed to scowl at their wives on a Sunday; in Hartford Connecticut, it is illegal for a husband to kiss his wife; and in some American states it is illegal to take a bath on God’s day. Meanwhile in Arizona taking naked photographs on a Sunday before noon was illegal, whilst in Peter’s Landing, Tennessee, a law was written up in which children were not allowed to argue or strike their siblings on the Sabbath. In the sunny state of Florida, a law was passed banning unmarried women from parachuting on a Sunday and if any should violate this law the penalty would be a fine, arrest or, worse still, a time in the local jail. Still on the subject of flying, no person was allowed to read the Sunday paper whilst sitting in a chair at the airport in Upperville Virginia while church services were going on and if you had young babies and lived in the state of Massachusetts, parents of babies were well aware that it was illegal to deliver diapers on a Sunday.

If you thought the laws relating to the Sabbath were uncanny they are relatively calm when you read of the church laws enforced. In comparison with many the British laws were quite liberal about church attending although there was an ancient law put in place whereby you could be fined one shilling for not attending. Little wonder the churches would always be crammed, no one could afford to cover the fine. Yet again, America has the monopoly when it comes to the country with the wackiest laws and what is even more mind boggling is the fact that some have withstood the passing of time with great fervour, whilst the more outrageous ones have thankfully disappeared in the archives of yesteryear, gone but never forgotten. It was proposed and passed that any ‘obnoxious religious activity’ of which whistling hymns, throwing one’s hat in the air whilst a service was ongoing, were regarded as being matters of gross misconduct and so prohibited in some states. Meanwhile, in the state of Kentucky it was made illegal to use a reptile during any part of a religious service, and for acrobats or those with circus affiliations, good news, in Winchester Massachusetts only tightrope walking was permitted inside churches – don’t even contemplate the reasoning behind such a law!

In the state of Alabama anyone who sought to impersonate a member of the clergy was in violation of breaking a law; similarly it was illegal for any man to wear a false moustache when attending church lest it would cause laughter amongst the congregation. Attending church must have been potentially dangerous in several American states. Why else would Georgia, Massachusetts and South Carolina, to name but two, find it necessary to constitute a law where it was a misdemeanour for any citizen to attend church worship on Sundays unless equipped with a rifle and it was loaded! One explanation offered was that the loaded rifle would offer protection should they fall upon any disgruntled Indians en route. Teaching one’s offspring the importance of manners has always been the responsibility of parents and no one takes this role more seriously than the church, because in Omaha Nebraska the law written says that if a child burps during a church service the parents could be arrested – it is taking things a little far. In Marion, Oregon, ministers are forbidden from eating garlic or even onions before delivering a sermon – lest they intoxicate the gathering throng, one would imagine. It can be heart warming when a member of the clergy throws some light hearted banter into the service but in West Virginia such behaviour was frowned upon and so banned. Thus a law was created preventing any member of the clergy to tell jokes or humorous stories from the pulpit during church services.

Attending a wake can be a very emotional time but for some absurd reason legislators in the state of Massachusetts found it necessary to impose a law that mourners attending a wake may only eat three sandwiches – providing, that is, they had any appetite! And some of the laws even extended to religious holidays where in some American states watching sports or wearing excessive makeup on Easter Sunday was banned! But the laws get even wackier: Can you believe a law was initiated banning animals in California from mating publicly within 1,500 feet of a tavern, school or place of worship?  In 1964 the US court upheld the rights of members of the Native American Church to consume peyote during religious ceremonies. In Britain, the Fasting and Holy Days Act of 1551 states that every citizen must attend a Christian church service on Christmas Day and must not use any kind of vehicle to get to the service. When one considers that church is a place where family values are important and love thy neighbour a message often relayed in the sermon, how could any Christian, or any other denomination possibly create a law whereby snow ploughs are not allowed to clear the church car parking areas for free – the church has to pay! Whenever you think, ‘there ought to be a law made about that’, never glibly make some joke about it, because it could well come true as indeed did some of the laws about which you have read clearly demonstrate.