North Dakota weighs lifting Sunday morning shopping ban

North Dakota residents can order alcohol at a restaurant or bar late Sunday morning but must wait until afternoon to go shopping because of a ban — rooted in religious tradition — that some legislators say no longer makes much sense.

Critics of the nation's strictest so-called blue law began another effort Monday to strip it from the books. Some such restrictions 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.

"I'm annoyed that I have to wait until Sunday afternoon to shop," said Fargo Democratic Rep. Pam Anderson, who has introduced legislation that would abolish the shopping restrictions. She said ending the prohibition would add tax revenue for the state and provide more employment opportunities.

A House committee began mulling the bill on Monday but took no immediate action. Anderson called it a "falsehood" that allowing Sunday morning sales would impact the number of people in the pews.

Most states at some time in their history have had laws regulating Sunday conduct, but with those have largely been struck from the books, or struck down by the courts. About a dozen states have some form of Sunday sales laws, but only North Dakota prohibits shopping on Sunday morning, said Heather Morton, a legislative analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

North Dakota and 16 other states have laws restricting vehicle sales, the group said. A dozen states do not allow alcohol sales on Sunday, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

Anderson's legislation would leave in place the state's all-day ban on Sunday vehicle sales and half-day ban on Sunday alcohol sales. Only restaurants and bars can sell alcohol before noon.

The legislation is the latest in a line of attempts to persuade the Legislature to end the Sunday morning shopping prohibition. The state Supreme Court has twice upheld the 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.

In 2015 the Legislature voted to allow 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. Backers of the Sunday shopping legislation are also using that argument, especially those in the eastern cities of Fargo and Grand Forks that compete for Sunday shoppers with open stores just across the Minnesota border.

The Greater North Dakota Association, the state's chamber of commerce, supports the legislation, while the North Dakota Retail Association has taken a neutral stance on it.

North Dakota Catholic Conference director Christopher Dodson told lawmakers that the purpose of the Sunday-closing law is "not to impose times of worship, nor is it to demand adherence to religious doctrine."

The intent, he said, "is to provide a common period of rest and relaxation to the benefit of families and communities."

Brandon Mendenwald, who owns a software company in Fargo, doesn't buy it.

"North Dakota doesn't dictate to farmers when to farm, hospitals when to practice medicine, or restaurants when to feed people," Medenwald told lawmakers. "Allow people to choose how to spend their own time ... Why does the state government not trust people to make this decision for themselves?"