North Dakota lawmakers to mull Sunday shopping ban repeal

Published: Dec. 19, 2018 at 3:35 PM CST
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Two Fargo lawmakers say the time is ripe to repeal Sunday business restrictions in North Dakota that have been in place since statehood and rooted in religious tradition.

Democratic Rep. Pam Anderson and Republican Rep. Shannon Roers Jones are sponsoring nearly identical legislation aimed at stripping the nation’s strictest so-called blue laws from the books.

“The time has come,” said Anderson, whose bipartisan measure was defeated by a handful of votes in the Senate last year. Three of the Republican senators who voted against the repeal are no longer in the Legislature.

“We were close last time and I think a couple of others, we can flip,” Roers Jones said. Her father, Fargo GOP Sen. Jim Roers, voted against the repeal last time and is expected to do the same this session, she said.

“We argue about it all the time,” she said.

Blue laws have existed since North Dakota became a state in 1889, stemming from fears that visiting a retail store on Sunday morning would compete with church and erode family values, leaving little time for rest.

Critics say Sunday shopping will not keep people from the pews and they hurt businesses, which must now compete with online shopping. The National Conference of State Legislatures says North Dakota is the only state that prohibits shopping on Sunday morning.

Anderson and Roers Jones point to the Legislature’s willingness to relax alcohol sales on Sunday, allowing restaurants and bars to begin serving alcohol at 11 a.m. on Sundays, instead of noon.

Proponents said North Dakota’s booze restrictions put cities bordering other states at a disadvantage because those states allow for earlier sales on Sundays. The argument also should be applied to all Sunday sales, Anderson and Roers Jones said.

“It doesn’t make sense that I can buy booze on Sunday morning but I can’t buy my children a pair of shoes,” Roers Jones said.

The lawmakers’ bills would leave in place the state’s all-day ban on Sunday vehicle sales and half-day ban on Sunday alcohol sales. Both proposed bills would forbid malls from requiring that a business in the facility be open on Sunday.

The Greater North Dakota Association, the state’s chamber of commerce, has long supported lifting the ban, while the North Dakota Retail Association has taken a neutral stance on it.

The state Supreme Court has twice upheld the Sunday shopping ban, once in the mid-1960s and again in the early 1990s. The state’s high court, in similar conclusions, ruled that the law was not to aid religion, but rather to set aside a day for “rest and relaxation.”

North Dakota slowly has relaxed its blue laws over the years, including those aimed at Sunday shopping. North Dakota law once required most businesses to stay closed on Sundays, but that was changed in 1985 to allow grocery stores to open.

The Legislature in 1991 allowed most businesses to open on Sundays but they couldn’t open their doors before noon.

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner was a freshman lawmaker when that legislation passed, which he called the most contentious of that session.

Wardner has consistently voted against repealing the ban since, but is having second thoughts now.

“I think the good Lord was right when he said we need a day of rest,” Wardner said. But allowing Sunday shopping “is not going to make or break family values.”