BISMARCK — North Dakota senators voted to repeal the state’s ban on Sunday morning shopping Tuesday, March 19, ending a longstanding debate that sharply divided lawmakers on issues of religion and free enterprise.
The Senate supported House Bill 1097 in a 25-21 vote, two months after the House passed it. Gov. Doug Burgum, a Republican, has already signaled his intent to sign the legislation sweeping away the so-called "blue law,” paving the way for Sunday morning sales later this year.
"It's all about allowing businesses to make the choices that they want to make about whether or not they're going to be open, and it's about the choices that the customers might make on whether or not they really care to shop on that day," said Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo. "You don't have to if you don't want to."
Repeal proponents have noted that the law doesn’t prevent workers from stocking shelves on Sunday mornings while shoppers wait outside store doors. They have argued the “Swiss cheese law” is unfair and outdated.
Restaurants, hotels, movie theaters and other establishments are exempt from the statute that makes it a Class B misdemeanor to operate a business before noon on Sunday. Violators of the Sunday closing law face, at most, 30 days in prison and a $1,500 fine.
Seeking to highlight holes in the ban, Grand Forks Republican Sen. Ray Holmberg wore a tie Tuesday that he bought on Amazon before a Sunday morning church service.
The bill’s opponents have leaned on religious arguments in pushing to preserve a period of rest. Bismarck Republican Sen. Dick Dever invoked the prevalence of mass shootings and behavioral health issues in schools while arguing policymakers should set aside time for family interaction.
“There was a time when as a society we placed great value on the time that families had for each other,” he said.
Christopher Dodson, executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, said his organization was "saddened" that "the Senate has narrowly rejected this part of what makes North Dakota a great place for families and workers."
Lawmakers and lobbyists were unsure how the Senate would vote just hours before the debate. Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, who presides over floor sessions, stood ready to break a tie in favor of the repeal, a spokesman said.
The repeal is slated to go into effect Aug. 1, marking a major rollback of Sunday restrictions that can be traced to a period before North Dakota became a state.
The Dakota Territory penal code from 1877, 12 years before North Dakota was granted statehood, prohibited “undue travel,” “public sports,” “servile labor” and other acts on the first day of the week. The penalty for “Sabbath breaking” was a $1 fine for each offense, according to a copy of the code provided by legislative staffers.
In 1991, lawmakers made North Dakota the last state to permit Sunday shopping by allowing it after noon. Voters later rejected a ballot measure seeking to overturn the change.
Businesses, however, remain divided over the issue.
Mike Rud, president of the North Dakota Retail Association, said this session was the first in his memory that the group testified in support of the repeal, which he called a “contentious” issue among its members that had forced them to take a neutral stance. He cited the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing states to require online sellers to collect sales tax, which was considered a big win for brick-and-mortar stores.
“We almost felt like we were hamstringing our guys who wanted to be open and wanted to compete against the online sales if we didn’t give them this opportunity,” Rud said.
State tax officials were unsure how much tax revenue the repeal bill could generate because it’s unclear how many businesses would open their doors on Sunday mornings and whether it would prompt additional sales.
Fargo Republican Sen. Jim Roers, the father of the bill’s chief backer, GOP Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, voted against a failed 2017 repeal bill but supported it Tuesday.
“Personally I was not in favor of it 100 percent, but my constituent base was convincing,” he said. “As well as my daughter.”
How North Dakota senators voted on repealing the Sunday morning shopping ban:
Howard Anderson (R-Turtle Lake), JoNell Bakke (D-Grand Forks), Brad Bekkedahl (R-Williston), Randy Burckhard (R-Minot), Kyle Davison (R-Fargo), Jim Dotzenrod (D-Wyndmere), John Grabinger (D-Jamestown), Joan Heckaman (D-New Rockford), Kathy Hogan (D-Fargo), Ray Holmberg (R-Grand Forks), Jordan Kannianen (R-Stanley), Karen Krebsbach (R-Minot), Curt Kreun (R-Grand Forks), Judy Lee (R-West Fargo), Richard Marcellais (D-Belcourt), Scott Meyer (R-Grand Forks), Erin Oban (D-Bismarck), Dave Oehlke (R-Devils Lake), Dale Patten (R-Watford City), Merrill Piepkorn (D-Fargo), Nicole Poolman (R-Bismarck), Jim Roers (R-Fargo), Kristin Roers (R-Fargo), Ronald Sorvaag (R-Fargo), Jessica Unruh (R-Beulah)
David Clemens (R-West Fargo), Dwight Cook (R-Mandan), Dick Dever (R-Bismarck), Michael Dwyer (R-Bismarck), Jay Elkin (R-Taylor), Robert Erbele (R-Lehr), Robert Fors (R-Larimore), David Hogue (R-Minot), Jerry Klein (R-Fessenden), Oley Larsen (R-Minot), Diane Larson (R-Bismarck), Gary Lee (R-Casselton), Larry Luick (R-Fairmount), Tim Mathern (D-Fargo), Janne Myrdal (R-Edinburg), Larry Robinson (D-Valley City), David Rust (R-Tioga), Donald Schaible (R-Mott), Shawn Vedaa (R-Velva), Terry Wanzek (R-Jamestown), Rich Wardner (R-Dickinson)