IT COULD WELL have been in the comic pages, but the photo and story appeared in yesterday's business and finance section: two Frederick County sheriff's deputies rather sternly confronting a Santa Claus, who (if there are no kids reading over your shoulder) was really Larry Baughman, vice president of the Hess's department store chain. Mr. Baughman/Claus, you see, was openly and deliberately defying the law -- a blue one -- that says Hess's and lots of other stores like it may not open for business on Sundays.

Though it is not clear whether Santa enjoys any immunity from arrest (he is not Iranian), he clearly enjoyed the publicity as the deputies delivered copies of the county law to store officials that day and then returned on Monday to serve summonses on three store executives. Beneath these hijinks, however, lies a serious and quite old problem: because Frederick County is surrounded by jurisdictions that allow Sunday sales, executives of Hess's claim that their store on the outskirts of Frederick is losing hundreds of thousands of dollars to competitors that are open.

Their claim has merit. The laws around Maryland vary, and the result is that merchants are being penalized unfairly. In Baltimore County, decisions upholding blue laws are scheduled for review by the Maryland Court of Appeals and, since this is the heavy retail season, a quick response is in order. The restrictions should be lifted and the decision to open or close left to the merchants. Many people do strongly oppose Sunday sales, but the lifting of blue laws would not compel anyone to buy on Sunday. Though competition may push reluctant merchants into Sunday hours, a law protecting them from this competition is as objectionable as a religious restriction imposed by a government. A better approach is to protect employees from being forced to work on the day that is their sabbath. But the artificial restrictions that now exist are neither sensible nor fair.