Constitution Daily

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For Law Day: Five unusual laws that remain on the books today

May 1, 2017 by NCC Staff


As the National Constitution Center observes Law Day, we have a few questions about local and state laws that are a bit out of the norm, with two of these laws in effect quite near our home in Philadelphia.

HEB_MargarineHere are five laws that are conversation starters for Law Day 2017.

1. You can’t pump your own gasoline at a service station in New Jersey and Oregon. This rule has been on the books in the Garden State since 1949 under the state’s Retail Gasoline Dispensing Safety Act. And despite a steady debate over the years, there hasn’t been enough pressure on New Jersey lawmakers to overturn the ban. Oregon’s law dates back in 1951 and there is bill now afoot to allow self-service stations in low-population areas.

2. You can’t buy beer at a Walmart in Pennsylvania. Philadelphians are also quite aware of the Prohibition-era restrictions on liquor sales in the Keystone State. The privatization of liquor stores and beer and wine sales has been part of a “spirited” debate in Pennsylvania since late 1933, when Governor Gifford Pinchot made it very difficult to buy legal booze. In recent years, alcohol-sales rules have been relaxed, but visitors to Pennsylvania accustomed to buying beer in all kinds of stores can often be confused and befuddled by the state’s rules. Utah also has restrictive beer laws, but it allows for some beer sales in grocery stores.

3. Cannibalism is illegal in Idaho. If you thought eating human flesh was illegal everywhere, think again. Our friends at the Cornell University Law School have a rundown of cannibalism jurisprudence and a famous British case called Regina v. Dudley and Stevens where sailors adrift in a boat killed a weakened shipmate and ate him. (Cannibalism is illegal in Britain.) The sailors were sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted. In the United States, Idaho has a statute that expressly forbids cannibalism, unless it is an extreme survival situation. Elsewhere, murder and corpse desecration laws come into effect.

4. Margarine is partially banned in Wisconsin for state prisoners and restaurant patrons. This law dates back to 1895 in a state that prides itself on its dairy heritage. In 1967, Wisconsin lawmakers started allowing margarine sales in general, but oleo was still barred in public schools, prisons and restaurants. Eventually, the Fond du Lac Reporter says butter was mostly cut back in schools, but some margarine restrictions remain in place in prisons and restaurants.

5. Atheists can’t hold elected office in Texas under its state constitution. The Texas Constitution says it doesn’t offer a religious test for political candidates, provided that candidates “acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.” This issue came up last December in a local election where a candidate claimed her opponent was an atheist, which he denied. Texas Monthly dug up an agreement from the 1980s where the state Attorney General acknowledged that provision violated the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment Establishment Clause. The Washington Post went back even further two years ago, when it referenced a 1961 Supreme Court decision. In Torcaso v. Watkins, Justice Hugo Black said Maryland’s requirement that a public office holder state a belief in God “unconstitutionally invades the appellant's freedom of belief and religion, and therefore cannot be enforced against him.”

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