Blue laws: 20 years after repealFARGO — In January 1981, Chester Reiten, then a Minot state legislator, delivered a fiery speech on the senate floor. He warned of rising greed, diminished worship, fractured families, and “the final nail in the coffin” of rural North Dakota.
By: Marino Eccher , The Dickinson Press
FARGO — In January 1981, Chester Reiten, then a Minot state legislator, delivered a fiery speech on the senate floor. He warned of rising greed, diminished worship, fractured families, and “the final nail in the coffin” of rural North Dakota.
The target of his ire: a proposal to loosen the state’s longstanding and near-blanket ban on Sunday shopping.
Reiten and his supporters carried the day, quashing the legislation in question by a laughable margin, preserving what Reiten called “one day of the week when people should relax.”
But for North Dakotans on both sides of the issue, relaxing on Sundays was far easier than relaxing about Sundays.
By the time the nation’s strictest retail restrictions were finally rolled back in 1991 — next month officially marks the 20th anniversary of repeal — supporters and opponents of North Dakota’s “blue laws” had spent decades waging war over the right to shop seven days a week.
A century of closings
North Dakota’s “blue laws” date back to the founding days of the state. The statute prohibited the sale of all but a few items on Sundays — drugs and medicines, ice cream, cigars and newspapers were among the exceptions (service businesses like restaurants and hotels were generally exempt).
For decades, they were codified under a section titled ominously as “Offenses Against Religion and Conscience.” But the bark was worse than the bite: enforcement was sparse and selective.
“Oh, that law?” one Jamestown grocer told The Forum in 1965. “I don’t pay any attention to it.”
From time to time, a zealous state’s attorney would embark on a crackdown, arresting a handful of clerks and store owners here and there on charges of “Sabbath-breaking” or threatening to seize merchandise from offending shops. A spate of such crackdowns in the 1960s led to complaints that the law was vague and discriminatory. In 1967, the law was updated to owner-operated stores with three or fewer employees to open on Sundays.
A few attempts to further ease restrictions in the decade that followed — a proposal to allow stores near borders to open, an attempt to mount a petition to change the law — went nowhere. When one state senator proposed to loosen restrictions in 1979, he couldn’t even get a co-sponsor on the bill. Neither shoppers nor businesses seemed eager for a change.
But in 1980, West Fargo Super Valu owner Roy Larson took a stand, getting arrested on purpose for opening on Sunday “to get a point across.”
Larson’s attorney argued the law was unconstitutional and unevenly enforced.
Larson ultimately lost his challenge, but inspired the judge who ruled on the case to give the state legislature what The Forum termed “a verbal spanking” over the lingering vagueness of Sunday closing regulations.
The case prompted legislators to promise to study the law and clarify it. It also prompted a resurgence in law enforcement attention on the issue.
A decade of debate
Once the state legislature began tinkering with the law, proponents for repeal began to turn out in earnest. Bids to revise or reverse the law were a near-annual occurrence through the 1980s.
The debate crossed party lines, instead fostering a rural-urban split. Constituents of the former feared Sunday openings would kill small-town businesses and erode family values; constituents of the latter wanted a chance to compete for Sunday shoppers with open stores just across the Minnesota border.
The rhetoric was pointed on both sides. Mylo Candee, a Bismarck businessman who led a 1986 campaign for repeal, said “the religious zealots, the religious conservatives, hold a gun to the legislature.” Candee got letters from opponents likening him to Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi or, alternately, “the devil himself.”
By the mid-1980s, business leaders in major cities were starting to push for repeal. Dean Hornbacher of Hornbacher’s grocery store complained that the three-employee limit on Sundays “really backs up” the store (that limit was bumped to six in 1985). West Acres Shopping Center founder William Schlossman called North Dakota “an island among the 50 states.” Schlossman and others argued the state — strapped for cash at the time — was leaving tens of millions of dollars in taxable sales on the table by barring Sunday shopping.
As the decade wore on, pushes for repeal intensified, bolstered by a rapid and dramatic swing in public opinion. In 1986, supporters of a repeal bill showed a video of packed Moorhead parking lots on Sundays, filled primarily with North Dakota license plates. The bill passed the Senate by a single vote but faltered in the House. A frustrated Alan Stenejhem, a Wahpeton Democrat, declared repeal opponents were fighting a losing battle.
“Sunday opening will happen,” he said.
The push for repeal
In 1990, a group of businesses fed up with waiting for the legislature sued to have the law overturned. The suit was headed by the Greater North Dakota Association (now known as the state’s Chamber of Commerce). One small-town newspaper publisher, offended by the perceived encroachment on rural businesses, proposed a boycott of the GDNA in response.
The lawsuit failed, like others before it, but not without a strange twist in the final ruling: Stores could open on Sundays, the state Supreme Court said — they just couldn’t sell any banned items. Most food was permitted, most dry goods weren’t; confusion reigned.
Meanwhile, frustrated business started looking for loopholes. Even the city of Fargo spent a good deal of time exploring an exemption that might allow Sunday openings during festivals, going to far as to declare “festivals” for events like Canada’s Dominion Day and the entire month of July before drawing a rebuke from state prosecutors.
By 1991, those efforts were moot: Spurred by public sentiment and media attention (The Forum published no fewer than 20 editorials on the subject in the 25 months that preceded repeal), the legislature finally came around.
On Feb. 1, a bill to wipe out the Sunday closing laws and permit stores to open at noon — a compromise to satisfy churchgoers — stormed through the Senate 39-14. The following week, the House followed suit 72-33, and Gov. George Sinner signed the repeal into law.
The overwhelming support for the bill — critical because a two-thirds majority prevented opponents from suspending the law with a petition to refer it to voters — prompted Fargo Democrat John Schneider to channel his inner T.S. Eliot and muse: “Like all momentous things that the Legislature decides after decades of discussion, it does not pass with a bang but more with a whimper.”
In a less poetic episode, Rick Berg (then a West Fargo legislator, now a member of Congress), in his “enthusiasm to see the vote” on the bill, failed to record his vote for repeal, instead pressing the button that summoned a page.
West Acres chief executive Brad Schlossman remembers helping his father William make the case for repeal. He remembers emotions running high and the increasingly confounding judicial rulings — “You can buy all the food you want but you can’t buy tinfoil,” as he puts it.
Mostly, he says, “I remember just how long it took. It’s easy to forget now that we’ve been operating this way for 20 years.”
Schlossman said it probably makes sense to revisit the remaining restrictions of the law, but added that further repeal wouldn’t change much at West Acres: “If it were unrestricted, we may open at 11 a.m. instead of 12,” he said.
Indeed, further easing Sunday restrictions remains on the legislative agenda of the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce. Andy Peterson, the Chamber’s president, said the group favors loosening Sunday hours “for businesses that choose to open.”
He said the Chamber isn’t looking to change car shopping or liquor laws, which still carry Sunday restrictions.
Jeff Delzer, an Underwood state congressman who was a rookie legislator in 1990, is one of four current lawmakers who voted against repeal. He says he did so because his constituents objected to Sunday opening for social and religious reasons.
“At that particular time, the majority of them did not want to do it,” he said.
It’s hard to pin down the precise impact of repeal. Taxable sales in the first quarter of 1992 were up 8 percent statewide over the first quarter of the year before — a gain that would translate to perhaps $40 million in annual retail sales today. Schlossman said Sunday isn’t the most important day at West Acres, “but it’s a very productive day.”
It’s hard to make the case that repeal destroyed family and church life in the dramatic fashion opponents suggested it would. But former governor Sinner — still a Sunday shopping advocate — cautioned that it’s too early to gauge the full impact of repeal.
“I don’t know if we really know the effects yet,” he said. “It’s too early to understand societal changes.”
And Chester Reiten, the former legislator who fought tooth and nail to keep stores closed on Sundays, says he believes the change has hastened a migration to urban areas and the demise of small rural towns.
“We probably couldn’t have stopped it,” Reiten said, with a note of resignation. “It was a way of life that disappeared, and it won’t come back.”
Eccher is a reporter at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.