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Blue Laws slow Sunday shopping: Lawmaker: Requesting change to aging legislation controversial

Customers line up outside the doors of Walmart in Dickinson shortly before noon Sunday. The business, which is generally open 24 hours, closes between midnight and noon Sundays in North Dakota because of the state's Blue Laws.

Need to pick something up from Walmart around noon Sunday? If so, you won't be alone as the retailer's entrances overflow with customers, leaving many to stand outside until the inside doors unlock.

As workers and their families flock to North Dakota from out of state for the oil boom, there are questions regarding the state's Blue Laws, which prevent general retailers from opening between midnight and noon on Sundays.

The Blue Laws have evolved over time, allowing for certain businesses to open their doors. Until 1991, no retail stores were allowed to open on Sundays. Prior to 1967, nothing opened.

"There weren't any stores at all that were open on Sunday," said District 36 Rep. Shirley Meyer, D-Dickinson, whose husband, Dean, was in the state Senate when the changes were made. "It was really an issue for anyone traveling, if you needed gas, anything like that.

"I believe (Dean) was one of the first people to put in so that we could be open on Sunday, and it was very, very controversial at that time."

If brought up in the Legislature today, there would still be controversy, Meyer said, but not to the extent in the 1980s.

Out-of-staters might not understand the Blue Laws, but they'll get used to them, said District 36 Rep. Mike Schatz, R-New England.

"I think everything they're finding in North Dakota is just a little bit different," he said.

The younger generation is questioning the need for Blue Laws, wondering why the government is controlling their Sunday morning activities, Meyer said.

"There's always the religious component where people think, 'You don't need to shop, you should be going to church on Sunday morning,'" she said.

There's more to the law than religion, Schatz said.

"The downtime and the rest that they get from that period of time is kind of welcomed," he said of workers.

If the law was to change, businesses wouldn't have to be open before noon, they would just have the option, said Jon Godfread, vice president of government affairs at the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce, who maintains the position that businesses know best when to open.

"If they feel it's going to be profitable for them to be open on Sunday mornings, they should be allowed to do that," he said.

The Legislature has dealt with exemptions through the years, some passing, some not, Godfread said.

"If you're going to address it, you should address it as a whole system, the whole law itself, rather than trying to do exceptions for each individual industry," he said.

It is a Class B misdemeanor for non-exempt businesses to operate between midnight and noon on Sunday, according to North Dakota law. A Class B misdemeanor is punishable by 30 days in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.

It is unclear in the law who is punished for transactions occurring between midnight and noon on Sundays, the business owner or the employee.

There is a provision allowing those who's Sabbath is observed on another day of the week to be open on Sundays between midnight and noon if they close during the hours on their Sabbath.

There has been no legislation drafted to alter the Blue Laws this year, but the session starts Jan. 8 and bills can be introduced until Jan. 28.

Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
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