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Illinois’ Red Light On Sunday Car Sales

This story was produced with Curious City, a news-gathering experiment from WBEZ that's designed to satisfy your curiosities.

A car salesman speaks with a customer at the Apple Chevrolet dealership in Orland Park, Ill., Saturday, Feb. 28, 2009. Automakers report U.S. sales for February on Tuesday.

A car salesman speaks with a customer at the Apple Chevrolet dealership in Orland Park, Ill., Saturday, Feb. 28, 2009. Automakers report U.S. sales for February on Tuesday. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

Judging by how many transportation-related questions Curious City receives, we denizens of the Chicago region are obsessed with getting around and will ask about any stumbling blocks — legal or otherwise — that threaten to get in our way.

Juli Schatz of South Elgin is just one fan who’s stepped forward with a puzzler related to mobility. Here’s the gist of what she wants to know:  

When did the state of Illinois begin its ban on Sunday car sales, and why?

The short answer? Turns out, auto dealers in Illinois have kept their doors closed on Sundays for more than three decades — from a law passed in 1982, to be specific. The state legislature sided with a group of dealers who argued that having a mandatory day off allowed employees to be with their families and practice their faith, without worrying that their competitors were open and could steal a sale.

Here’s an excerpt of the law Illinois still follows today:

(625 ILCS 5/5-106) (from Ch. 95 1/2, par. 5-106)

Sec. 5-106. No person may keep open, operate, or assist in keeping open or operating any established or additional place of business for the purpose of buying, selling, bartering, exchanging, or leasing for a period of 1 year or more, or offering for sale, barter, exchange, or lease for a period of 1 year or more, any motor vehicle, whether new or used, on the first day of the week, commonly called Sunday; ...

But this story over Sunday car sales goes back even further than the 1980s; Illinois has had this debate since the 1950s, with similar arguments for and against being resurrected each time — including the issue’s resurrection today.

Chapter 1: Prairie State car law, in the shade of blue

The state’s Sunday auto sales ban is one of many state-level blue laws, which — as a category — prohibit certain secular activities on Sundays. The ban first made its way through the Illinois legislature in 1951. Dealers wanted to allow a day off, but any single dealership couldn’t close its doors while competitors stayed open. Legislators agreed to a mandatory day off and passed a bill to make it happen, but the story got complicated as soon as the bill hit Governor Adlai Stevenson’s desk.

Stevenson’s Attorney General, Ivan A. Elliott, encouraged the governor to veto the bill, saying it likely violated the Illinois Constitution “as an interference with the right of an individual to pursue any trade or occupation which is not injurious to the public or a menace to the safety or welfare of society.”

Stevenson heeded the AG’s word, and vetoed Senate Bill 504.

“If such a restriction on Sunday trade is sound for automobiles, why should it not be extended to newspapers, groceries, ice cream cones and other harmless commercial transactions?” Stevenson wrote in a veto message. “Carried to its logical extreme, any business group with sufficient influence in the legislature can dictate the hours of business of its competitors. And if hours, why not prices?”

A short Chapter 2, and complicated Chapter 3

A nearly identical bill followed a similar path in 1957. House Bill 946 survived both houses, only to be defeated at the hand of Governor William Stratton days after passage.

The legislature made another attempt in 1961, only this time Governor Otto Kerner signed Senate Bill 597, making it a crime for any person to sell, barter or exchange any new or used motor vehicle on the day “commonly called Sunday.”

But some car dealers weren’t jazzed about their new schedules. Employees at Courtesy Motor Sales in Chicago had been able to choose any day of the week they wished for their day off, but many of them chose to work on Sundays because they made almost twice as much as they did any other day of the week. Twenty percent of Courtesy’s annual sales in 1960 were made on Sundays.

So Courtesy employees filed an injunction in Cook County Circuit Court that ended up before the Illinois Supreme Court. The salesmen and their lawyers argued the law was unconstitutional, as it singled out one specific group of sellers.

Attorney Joe Roddy was a senior in law school at the time, working as a law clerk for the State’s Attorney’s office. As the State’s Attorney was responsible for defending the statute, Roddy helped write the briefs. He also penned an article for the Chicago-Kent Law review about the case.

“It was a huge deal,” Roddy recalls. “I remember a lot of publicity. Because you know, car dealerships, everybody buys a car — even in the 60s — and the car dealers wanted to be open on Sundays. So it attracted a lot of publicity because they didn’t single out any other industry at that time.”

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that the law was unconstitutional, and the debate died down for a bit.

Blue (law) since 1982

In the 1980s, car dealers across the state wrote state lawmakers, arguing that a mandatory day off would protect the livelihood of sellers and would provide needed time for family or faith. A new bill banning sales on Sundays made its way through the legislature, with major support coming from trade organizations that represent car dealerships.

But the measure also had opponents.

“I think it comes with some amazement that a bill like this would come before us. We have heard time and time again from the business community that they would like less regulation by the state, and less mandates,” Senator Don Totten argued on the Senate floor at the time. “I think this runs contrary to our system of free enterprise.”

The bill ended up making it way through both houses, leaving Governor Jim Thompson with a tough decision.

“Look, I’m not a big fan of blue laws,” Thompson now says. “I think commerce should be open and free.”

And because of that, Thompson says, he did go back and forth on this one.

“It was not a simple decision,” he says. “It was more a complex decision, but I guess what impressed me was the unanimity of the opinion [of] the dealer and the employee group. And the notion that if people — in order to protect their livelihood — had to work 7 days a week, that was a pretty tough proposition, especially people with families.”

Thompson ended up signing the bill on July 13, 1982, but the law wasn’t implemented until April 1984, when the state’s Supreme Court ruled the ban was constitutional. The state has enforced a six-day sales week for dealers around Illinois ever since.

Ice cream cones and planned purchases

Fast forward to early 2014. It turns out that our question from Juli Schatz question is timely. Much to the dismay of many Illinois car dealers, Republican State Senator Jim Oberweis introduced a bill at the end of 2013 that would allow all dealers to open their doors on Sundays, should they want to.

Oberweis made the argument that his plan wouldn’t force dealerships to do anything. Having government decide when businesses can and can’t be open, he says, amounts to too much regulation.

“I believe it is wrong for government to tell a business when they can be open and when they cannot be open. That’s what they do in Russia, not in the United States,” Oberweis says. “And it becomes even worse when we learn that this is an industry supported effort. They decided they don’t want to be open themselves, and then they attempt to use government to prohibit competition on those days. That is just fundamentally wrong in my opinion.”

Oberweis says the bill likely won’t go anywhere in 2014, as too few Senate Democrats are on board with repealing the ban.

Dave Sloan, President of the Chicago Automobile Trade Association, says the bill’s also likely to fail because both consumers and dealers are happy with the current law. The CATA has been a long-time supporter of the Sunday closing law, and Sloan says he was surprised to see Oberweis’ bill come up in the first place. In his 20 years at the CATA, including their work running the Chicago Auto Show, he says he’s never heard a single complaint from a consumer over not being able to shop on Sundays.

“If the purchase of a car was an impulse buy, like if you were buying an ice cream cone from one of Mr. Oberweis’ ice cream stores, that might make a difference. But it’s a planned purchase,” Sloan says. “So if you have the opportunity to keep costs lower, and the consumer isn’t inconvenienced by that, well, then everyone wins.”

Sloan says a six-day work week helps dealers attract high-caliber employees; he argues it’s hard to find full-time salesmen who will commit to working on commission when the dealership is open seven days a week.

As time goes on, and technology advances, so too do auto sales, according to Pete Sander, president of the Illinois Automobile Dealers Association. He says compared to decades past, many more vehicles are financed during the purchase process. Since banks aren’t open on Sundays either, he says, closing a sale becomes difficult, if not impossible.  

And Sander says now that both dealers and manufacturers have websites available 24/7, the average customer only visits a dealership lot an average of one and a half times before purchasing a vehicle. Five years ago, the average customer would visit a sales lot five times.

“By the time they get to the dealer on Saturday, they pretty much know what they want, and whether the dealer has what they want. It’s just a matter of negotiating the price of the trade-in, and negotiating the price of the car,” Sander says. “So it’s not like the old going from dealer to dealer to find the right car in the color and model you want, and kicking the tires as we used to do in the old days.

“It’s a much different commercial transaction now.”

Our question comes from: Juli Schatz

Our look at Illinois’ ban on Sunday car sales comes courtesy of South Elgin resident Juli Schatz, who says she can’t quite put her finger on when, exactly, this seed of curiosity about Illinois’ ban on Sunday cars was first planted.

It likely happened, she says, decades ago when her dad helped her shop for a car. Schatz’s dad worked five days a week, so he was only free to kick tires or test-drive on weekends. She thought it was strange that Sunday sales were off the table.

“I asked [my dad] and he had no idea why, and that was long before the Internet or anything,” Schatz recalled. “We actually asked a couple of car dealers while we were shopping for my new used car, and they had no idea.”

Schatz says she’s been curious about it ever since. Years later, she worked in ad sales for several newspapers, including the Naperville Sun, and she had car dealerships as some of her customers.

“Same thing,” she says. “Nobody really knew. And some of these dealers had been in business for quite a while and they said, ‘You know, it’s just always been that way.’”

Lauren Chooljian is a WBEZ Reporter. Follow her @laurenchooljian.

Tags: car sales