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Editorial: Voters should decide Sunday closing law's fate

One of the perverse joys of living in North Dakota is trying to figure out what is and isn't legal on Sunday. It's legal to have your car fixed on Sunday, but not to buy a car. It's legal to buy soup on Sunday, but not to buy a can opener before 12 noon. It's legal to buy clothing on Sunday, but not work gloves or infant supplies. Logic doesn't seem to be the law's guiding principle.

North Dakota remains one of the last bastions of the moralistic "blue laws" that have now been mostly discarded. Many still view the Sunday closing law as a way to observe the Sabbath—but that justification ignores the fact that for some the Sabbath falls on another day or that many churches offer services on Saturday. That justification also ignores the fact that many residents work on Sunday.

The first crack in North Dakota's Sunday closing law came in 1967, after legislators' eyes were opened by the severe blizzard of 1966, when people had difficulty getting necessities after the snowstorm. The law was clarified to exempt certain businesses and services, including restaurants, pharmacies, hotels, hospitals, telephone and transportation services, tourist attractions, public performances and ice manufacturing. Ice manufacturing?

The blue law became a shade lighter again in 1985, when grocery shopping became legal on Sunday. In 1991, it became legal to open most businesses on Sunday, though not before noon. A big change came in 2015, when it became legal to buy alcohol in bars starting at 11 a.m. on Sunday, a concession for football fans.

Despite years of public grumbling about the Sunday closing law, North Dakota legislators have voted to keep the increasingly unpopular law in place. Last session, when the issue came up, Rep. Bernie Satrom, R-Jamestown, caused an uproar when he joked that the law should remain in place so wives can make their husbands breakfast in bed.

The good news is that voters finally might get the chance to decide the issue. A Fargo businessman, Brandon Medenwald, plans a petition drive to place the Sunday closing law on the ballot next year. If the effort succeeds, it will present voters with another chance to reverse legislators' stubborn refusal to heed their wishes, as they did last year in approving medical marijuana and earlier in adopting a ban on indoor smoking in public buildings. Both laws are hugely popular but failed to gain legislative support.

Business owners, not the state, should decide whether to open their doors to customers on Sunday.

Editorials represent the views of Forum management and the Editorial Board.

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