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Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, R-Fargo, introduces House Bill 1097 to the House Industry, Business and Labor Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 9, at the state Capitol in Bismarck. The bill would allow retailers the choice to be open on Sunday mornings. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune

Sunday morning shopping debate returns to North Dakota Legislature

BISMARCK — A North Dakota legislative hearing exposed familiar battle lines in the long-running debate Wednesday, Jan. 9, over the state’s ban on Sunday morning shopping as another repeal effort faced its first test in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, R-Fargo, argued lawmakers should ditch an “inconsistent and arbitrary law” and allow businesses to decide when to open their doors. She noted other businesses like restaurants, hotels and movie theaters are exempt from the law that makes it a Class B misdemeanor to operate a business before noon on Sunday.

“Even though we want to make sure that we protect people’s ability to have time to practice their religion or spend time with their family … it’s not the responsibility of the North Dakota state government to say, ‘This is the time,’” Roers Jones told the House Industry, Business and Labor Committee during the hearing.

The committee didn’t immediately vote on the bill Wednesday morning, which came nearly two years after lawmakers narrowly defeated similar repeal legislation.

Wednesday’s bill was backed by leaders of the North Dakota Retail Association and the Greater North Dakota Chamber, who suggested it could level the playing field between brick-and-mortar stores and online businesses that never shut their doors. Gov. Doug Burgum, a Republican, has already signaled his support for the repeal.

But the idea faced faith-based opposition, including from a Fargo pastor who urged lawmakers to protect religious freedoms and decried an over-commercialization of society.

“Will it make us a better society if we can buy anything we want seven days a week?” said the Rev. Douglas VanderMeulen of the Community Baptist Church in Fargo.

Some worried repealing the law would harm workers’ ability to practice their religion, with Republican Rep. Jim Kasper, of Fargo, citing First Amendment protections. But state law already includes requirements that retail workers be granted time off for religious services unless it would burden the employer or other employees, or if the employer “has made a reasonable effort to accommodate” the request.

Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, introduced separate legislation that would remove those exceptions and expand the protections to all workers, but the bill would only become effective if the Sunday closing law is repealed.

Christopher Dodson, executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, contended the Sunday closing law is meant to set aside time for rest and relaxation rather than to ensure people attend church.

Wednesday’s hearing continued a decades-long debate over the state's Sunday restrictions.

In a 1966 court case, a large discount store was convicted of “Sabbath breaking” because it sold its merchandise on a Sunday, and prosecutors pursued a chain of Cass County grocery stores in the early 1980s for opening for business “without limitation of the items offered for sale,” according to the state Supreme Court. The owner of a Grand Forks hardware store attempted to get around the law by hosting a Sunday “garage sale” in 1990.

The state has gradually peeled back the Sunday restrictions over the years, and retailers were allowed to open their doors after noon in the early 1990s. Today, North Dakota shoppers are known to wait patiently in store parking lots or travel across state lines to run errands.

Roers Jones said she’s been making one-on-one pitches to persuade her colleagues in a bid to finally undo the ban. She argued it goes against Republican values of personal responsibility and limited government.

“This is the opposite of limited government,” Roers Jones said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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