updated 7/2/2004 4:35:23 PM ET 2004-07-02T20:35:23

A legislative mistake that would require Virginia businesses to give employees Saturdays or Sundays off as a "day of rest" if they request it was blocked from taking effect this weekend by a judge Friday.

Judge T.J. Markow granted an emergency 90-day injunction at the urging of several Virginia corporations.

The delay will give legislators time to correct the oversight, which alarmed a wide range of businesses with weekend or round-the-clock shifts to cover, such as factories, stores, utilities and restaurants.

"The gun has at least been removed from their hand and put back in the holster," said Hugh Keough, president and chief executive of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

The judge acted reluctantly, saying he believed he was encroaching upon the legislature's prerogative.

The "day of rest" law was mistakenly enacted earlier this year when Virginia's General Assembly repealed the antiquated "blue laws" that once required businesses to close on Sundays.

Lawmakers unwittingly struck from the books a decades-old exemption for private businesses from Virginia's 17th-century day-of-rest law. The error went unnoticed and was signed into law by Gov. Mark R. Warner.

The day-of-rest law entitles workers at factories, restaurants, hotels, movie theaters and private hospitals to take off Saturday or Sunday _ whatever their chosen day of worship _ if they so desire.

Business that do not abide by their employees' wishes can be fined up to $500 for each offense. Also, an employer that forces an employee to work on a day of rest can be made to pay triple the worker's regular wages.

Dominion Resources, Virginia's main electricity utility, Smithfield Packing, one of the nation's largest meat producers, International Paper and others argued that the provision was unconstitutional because it specified particular days off for religious purposes.

They also argued that the measure violates a passage in the Virginia Constitution that says a bill can deal with only one purpose, clearly stated in the title of the legislation.

The companies said the law would cripple Smithfield's ability to meet its timetables for processing and shipping fresh meat, and could threaten the state's power supply.

"We have power stations, operations centers. We perform reliable services that are important to the state's economy. We'd just like a little common sense in play here to get us back to the status quo that existed before yesterday," Dominion Resources spokesman Jim Norvelle said.

However, he said none of the utility's 9,100 Virginia employees had tried to invoke the law.

The judge blocked the law, but added, "The legislative process, like the judicial process, is sacred. To say, `We didn't mean to do it and the court needs to come in and fix it,' well, it's not as simple as that."

Legislative leaders are considering a special session to fix the law.

Businesses began scrambling this week after they learned of the mistake, desperate to make sure their holiday weekend operations were not disrupted.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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