North Dakota repeals Sunday morning shopping ban

James Macpherson
Associated Press
Sen. Jim Roers, left, and his daughter, Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, pose for a photo at the state Capitol in Bismarck, North Dakota, Tuesday, March 19, 2019. Roers Jones of Fargo pushed successful legislation to repeal the state's longstanding Sunday business restrictions that are rooted in religious tradition. Jim Roers voted against the repeal in 2017 but changed his mind after pressure from constituents and his daughter.

Bismarck, N.D. – North Dakota’s Republican-led Legislature on Tuesday repealed the nation’s toughest Sunday business restrictions – rules that are rooted in religious tradition and that have been in place since statehood.

Senators voted 25-21 on the House bill repealing the ban on Sunday morning shopping. Republican Gov. Doug Burgum has supported the repeal and is expected to sign the bill. The repeal would take effect Aug. 1.

North Dakota has had “blue laws” restricting business on Sunday since it became a state in 1889. They stemmed from fears that visiting a retail store on Sunday morning would compete with church and leave little time for rest.

Fargo Republican Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, the bill’s primary sponsor, had made a push through social media to have constituents urge their senators, including her father, Fargo GOP Sen. Jim Roers, to vote for the bill. Jim Roers voted against the repeal in 2017 when it failed by just two votes. He said he personally didn’t like the idea of repealing the law but that he voted in favor of the bill Tuesday “because of my constituents, as well as my daughter.”

Church groups, including the North Dakota Catholic Conference, had asked parishioners to lobby against the repeal. Director Christopher Dodson said the Sunday-closing law is “not about imposing times of worship.” The intent is to set aside time for “rest and relaxation” that is “important to families and communities,” he added.

Most states at some time in their history have had laws regulating Sunday activities, but most have since been repealed by lawmakers or struck down by courts. About a dozen states have some form of Sunday sales laws, but only North Dakota prohibits shopping on Sunday morning, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The bill would leave in place the state’s all-day ban on Sunday vehicle sales and half-day ban on Sunday alcohol sales. Shopping malls and building owners could not require 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, ruling that the law was not to aid religion, but rather to set aside a day for “rest and relaxation.”

North Dakota once required most businesses to stay closed on Sundays, but that was changed in 1985 to allow grocery stores to open. In 1991, the Legislature agreed to allow most businesses to open on Sundays, but not 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 entire Sunday repeal argued similarly.

GOP Sen. Howard Anderson, a retired pharmacist and former grocery store owner, voted for the repeal even though he previously opposed it and said many of his constituents asked him to do so again this time.

“Maybe it’s time to change it,” he said. “I’m tired of hearing about it.”