Many visitors to Germany can find themselves standing outside a closed department store, perplexed to find that they cannot do a bit of shopping during their weekend trip. This is a result of Germany's long-held resistance to Sunday shopping even in the face of growing consumerism.
Yet many of Germany's 16 states have already made some exceptions, allowing stores to open a few Sundays a year. And in Berlin the city government had gone the furthest in chipping away at the ban on Sunday trading. In 2006 the German capital gave the green light for retailers to open on 10 Sundays a year, including the four Advent Sundays preceding Christmas.
However, Germany's Constitutional Court has now upheld a complaint made by the country's Catholic and Protestant churches, based on a clause in the German constitution that Sunday should be a day of rest and "spiritual elevation."
The court on Tuesday decided in favor of the churches, saying that Sunday opening should not take place four weeks in a row. The ruling will not affect shopping this December, but would come into force next year. However, the ruling did not overturn completely the principle of limited Sunday store opening.
The labor unions had joined the churches in their campaign to ring-fence Sunday as a day off for the nation. However, their focus was not on protecting the right to practise religion, but rather on protecting workers in the retail sector from having to work on Sundays, sometimes the only day they might get to spend with other members of their family. The services union Verdi greeted Tuesday's ruling with "relief and joy," saying this was a boon to shopworkers and their families.
German papers on Wednesday are broadly in favor of the ruling, though their reasons for supporting the court's decision are strikingly different.
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"The Constitutional Court had to overthrow the Berlin law. ... The judgement was not 'out of touch with reality,' as the Berlin Chamber of Commerce claims, but is actually very closely in touch with real life. The great diversity of working lives brings with it the fact that members of a single family are forced into different and sometimes incompatible working hours. If the state does not use some of its regulatory power to give a dependable rhythm to at least one free day -- and that is still Sunday -- then the family faces the threat of being pulled further apart."
"If they have no time with each other and for each other, then the formal notion of belonging together loses value. This danger faces many families in society. … The fact that in the face of growing commercialization and fewer jobs hardly any employee ever dares to ask for a free Saturday, led the labor unions to join the churches in their campaign -- with noticeable success."
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"The churches have argued correctly that employees in the retail sector are not given the possibility of organizing their Advent Sundays according to Christian principles: going to church, being involved in the community, singing and reading aloud. It is part of religious freedom to be able to do these things."