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To rest or to retail? Officials question state's Sunday shopping restrictions

With today's hectic schedules shopping is rarely be done between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. during the week. To give shoppers more opportunity, talk exists of a legislative bill allowing businesses to open before noon on Sunday, a practice prohibited to some retailers in North Dakota.

"I would say it's likely that something may come up, but I wouldn't say for certain at this point," said Jeb Oehlke, vice president of governmental affairs at the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce.

North Dakota's Sunday closing law, in which a revised version was enacted in 1973, deems conducting "business or labor for profit in the usual manner and location" between midnight and noon on Sundays, a Class B misdemeanor, according to the North Dakota Century Code.

The law also prohibits the sale of certain items, including appliances, most clothing, musical instruments, building supplies and jewelry, among others, between those times, according to the Century Code.

With roots stemming back to the early 1900s, the law was "strictly adhered to for a long time" and gradually, has undergone many amendments including in 1979, 1983, 1985, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1993, 2001 and 2003, said Jack McDonald, a Bismarck-based attorney.

"There's a lot of emotion and policy behind this law, too ... and mainly it's not so much religious as it is urban and rural," McDonald said. "What the small towns see is this is further erosion of them and that if you allow unqualified sales, it's going to destroy these small towns."

Some see it as an infringement on the freedom of enterprise.

"Our policy statements support a complete repeal of that law," Oehlke said. "I don't know for certain that the bill will be introduced, but we're talking about it. That's kind of one thing we promote is the freedom to do what you want with your business hours. If you want to be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, we think you ought to be able to do that ... it should be the business owner's choice, not the government's choice."

A representative of the state's Legislative Council said it cannot confirm or deny an upcoming bill regarding the Sunday closing law until its filing or until a Legislator makes it public.

While concerns with the state's Sunday law are not heard daily by the Chamber, they are heard, Oehlke said.

Oehlke said a recent instance of concerns with the Sunday law occurred Valentine's Day, as it fell on a Sunday.

"Florists were worried that if they had customers that wanted flowers delivered right away in the morning, but state law, it was actually a misdemeanor ... to be open before noon," Oehlke said.

Mike Rud, president of the North Dakota Retail Association, said the law was quite controversial after it passed and association membership was divided, but since then, members have been somewhat mute on the topic.

"I think people have settled into it and do what they need to do to comply with the law and I don't think it's a real big issue at this point," Rud said. "There might be some movement afoot to change the opening time to be before noon. I think you might see a bill on that this session."

Rud said the Association discussed the law at its last board meeting this summer and feels the group will remain fairly neutral on the bill.

"I think most of our guys feel that regardless of what the new law might be, they would make that decision from a business standpoint -- if it was worth their while to be open those extra three of four hours a day," Rud said. "I think a lot of our guys, maybe during the holiday season, would like to see an opportunity to open earlier and stay open later."

Craig Newby, owner of Newby's Ace Hardware in Dickinson, said if the law was amended to allow a Sunday opening before noon, he would probably go for it.

"I don't know that I would push for it I guess," Newby said. "It's just something I guess that we would probably go along with and we would be open if that's what it came to."

Newby said extended Sunday hours could bring more business certain times of year.

"When it's warmer and when summer's going and people are working in yards and with the number of people that work seven days a week, a lot of them try to get things done on their day off or their morning off or whatever," Newby said.

Stark County State's Attorney Tom Henning said in his nearly 12 years as state's attorney, prosecution of Sunday law violators has been rare, if at all.

"It is so well complied with by the local merchants that I don't recall ever receiving a complaint," Henning said. "When the law got amended ... I think everybody was so happy to be open in the afternoon ... at least they could be open in the afternoon so that they weren't concerned about all their possible customers running off to Montana or someplace else where they could be open. Maybe that was such a relief nobody ever felt the need to push the issue."