The basic hypothesis of the study is that, with the repeal of blue laws, churches must now compete with secular activities, both from the perspective of time allocation (Do I go to church this morning or do I work, play or shop?) and of goods allocation (Do I spend my money at the mall or do I donate to the church?). Results from the survey show that the church suffers from both perspectives. In economics-speak, the opportunity cost of going to church has risen. With the blue laws, there was not as much opportunity cost to attending church. If you didn't go, you didn't have more options available to you (e.g., going shopping; the stores were closed). However, with the blue laws' repeal, now people had more options open to them. If you didn't want to attend church, then you could go shopping instead. One hour of worship at church meant that you had lost one hour's worth of secular activity.
Not surprisingly, church attendance has decreased, and donations to churches have fallen although, interestingly enough, donations to non-church charities didn't fall after the repeal of blue laws. The people who have stopped going to church were what the authors called "initially religious." Meaning, they used to be go to church but, with the repeal of the blue laws, they drifted away from the church. (However, as the authors also noted, the initially religious didn't become less religious, they only worshiped in a church less.) These "initially religious" are also the people who had the biggest increases in substance abuse. The authors found that among the initially religious, the more often they attended church in the past, the more likely they were to begin heavy drinking. For example, those who attended most frequently were 6.5% more likely to drink than those who didn't attend, which corresponded to about one-third of the difference in heavy drinking between weekly attendees and non-attendees. Likewise, those who who attended somewhat frequently were 3.3% more likely to drink. Results for marijuana consumption were very large (10.5% and 6.7%, respectively), while cocaine consumption increased somewhat less than alcohol consumption (4.1-4.3% for both very and somewhat frequent attendees).
The authors conclude with the following:
Absent strong negative externalities, there seems little argument for restricting the days of the week that commerce can take place. But religious participation may be one of those activities with such externalities. As such, secular regulations such as blue laws which promote religious participation can have external effects. Whether those external effects are sufficiently large to justify restrictions on commerce is an excellent question for future research.
In other words, should blue laws be put back onto the books? I would argue that there is a case for doing so. The Qur'an tells us several times to enjoin what is right, forbid what is wrong, and believe in Allah (e.g., 3:104, 3:110, 3:114, 22:41). Would not society benefit by encouraging religious participation, by having American Christians going back to church on Sundays, by donating money to churches (instead of spending it at the mall), and by reducing the amount of substance abuse (and hypocrisy), especially among those who used to be the best attendees? I would think so.
The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) and MIT's Quarterly Journal of Economics both have the final draft of the report available for download, but only for a fee; you can read an earlier draft of the paper here [pdf].
HT: Economist's View
Update: "Macro and Other Market Musings" has More on the Opportunity Cost of Religion.