The Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe has opened a hearing into whether allowing shops to open 10 Sundays of the year in Berlin is in line with the country’s law governing religious freedom.
Most shoppers have welcomed the extended opening hours
Unlike in some other European countries, Sunday shopping has long been taboo in Germany. In keeping with Article 140 of the Basic Law, Sundays and holidays are designated as "rest" days.
The 1956 law stipulated that shops must close by 6:30 p.m. on weekdays and at 2 p.m. on Saturdays. Decades later, in 2004, the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe reaffirmed that businesses must limit themselves to the prescribed working hours.
However, with reforms to Germany's federal set-up in 2006, the various individual states became responsible for closing times of businesses and shops. Many states decided to put their new-found powers to test, allowing sales in large department stores and shopping centers, especially during the Christmas season.
Berlin stores open longest
However, no state has taken as much advantage of the new rules as Berlin.
Many shops in Germany have extended their opening hours
Shops in Berlin can remain open from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. on all four Advent Sundays of the year. On other holidays, the Berlin government decided ‘'in public interest'' not to impose restrictions on the shopping hours. Shops can also open on two additional Sundays or holidays for “special events.”
In most other states, only four Sundays and holidays are free for business, while in Brandenburg it's six and in Baden-Wuerttemberg, three.
The federal reforms marked a new chapter in a long history of the liberalization of shopping hours in Germany. Way back in 1956, the so-called "lange Samstag,'' or long Saturday, was introduced. More than three decades later, in 1989, the “evening working hours” were instituted, which allowed shops to remain open until 8:30 p.m. on Thursdays.
From 1996 onwards, shops could remain open for business till 4 p.m. on Saturdays. And finally, in 2003, the weekend closing time was pushed back to 8 p.m.
Churches have opposed changes
Church officials have called the laws unconstitutional
While most shoppers welcomed the changes, the liberalization didn't go down well with everyone.
Unions and churches have been up in arms over the move. According to their estimates, some 2.7 million workers in the retail sector are suffering due to the extended shopping hours. They say these employees had already been subjected to unhealthy working hours that are not family friendly.
In late 2007, the Protestant and Catholic churches in Berlin decided to take their grievances to the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe.
In their plea, the churches say that almost a fifth of all Sundays, and especially the four Advent Sundays, are affected.
Moreover, they argue, the Berlin law on Sunday shopping does not provide effective sanctions against any violations. Church representatives say offenses can be punished with a fine of up to 2,500 euros ($3,500) which they say is a pittance for big department stores and chains.
Editor: Trinity Hartman