House passes repealing blue law

Rep. Kathy Skroch, R-District 26, speaks against legislation to repeal the Sunday closing law. House Bill 1097 passed Thursday afternoon in a 56-35 vote, a wider margin of success than the proposal saw two years ago.

BISMARCK — A renewed effort to repeal North Dakota’s ban on Sunday morning shopping cleared its first major hurdle Thursday, Jan. 17, as House lawmakers agreed to ditch what some called an outdated and unfair law.

Legislators passed House Bill 1097 Thursday afternoon in a 56-35 vote, a wider margin of success than the proposal saw in the same chamber two years ago. The legislation now moves to the Senate, where a repeal bill failed by two votes in 2017.

Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, R-Fargo, the bill’s primary sponsor, welcomed Thursday’s vote but said she and other supporters “have work to do” to ensure the ban bites the dust. Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, predicted Thursday the repeal would pass the Legislature.

Republican Gov. Doug Burgum supports repealing the Sunday closing law, a spokesman previously said.

Repeal supporters said the bill was a matter of economic freedom and argued retail employees are already working inside the stores ahead of noon on Sunday.

“Our law ... does not prevent people from working, it just stops us from shopping,” said Rep. Dan Ruby, R-Minot. “It’s time probably that we just change the law and then allow businesses to decide when it’s best for them to be open and closed.”

North Dakota has gradually chipped away at Sunday commerce restrictions over the years, and retailers were allowed to open their doors after noon in the early 1990s. But restaurants, hotels, movie theaters and other establishments are exempt from the law that makes it a Class B misdemeanor to operate a business before noon on Sunday.

Several opponents leaned heavily on religious arguments Thursday. Rep. Sebastian Ertelt, R-Lisbon, said laws passed by the state Legislature are not above “God’s law,” which he said policy makers already recognize by prohibiting “wholesale murder.”

Rep. Kathy Skroch, R-Lidgerwood, argued people need time for rest and relaxation and blamed the Legislature for “undermining” Sunday restrictions.

“For the good of our families and our state, we must not strip the last remnants of the North Dakota Sunday closing laws,” she said.

Christopher Dodson, executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, said in a statement that the bill’s passage “reflects the growing tendency in our culture to put convenience and profit over families and workers” and called on the Senate to reject the bill.

Whether the Senate will again halt the repeal drive remains to be seen, but Roers Jones said she has heard of “a couple” senators who previously opposed the bill but now favor doing away with the ban.

Citing arguments that the state’s largest city is losing business across the Red River to neighboring Minnesota, Fargo Republican Rep. Jim Kasper flipped his vote in favor of the repeal Thursday after opposing it two years ago.

“I voted what I think is the best interest of my district and the city of Fargo,” he said.

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