BISMARCK — North Dakotans who go hunting for a case of cold ones early on Sunday morning are out of luck. The remnants of the state's once-strict blue laws prohibit the sale of alcohol before 11 a.m., but a bill that would change the rule has just picked up momentum.

Senate Bill 2220 would let bars, restaurants, liquor shops and other vendors sell alcohol starting at 8 a.m. on Sundays, aligning it with every other day of the week. The proposal received a "do pass" recommendation from the Senate Industry, Business and Labor Committee via a 4-2 vote on Tuesday, Jan. 26. The bill will now go to a vote of the full Senate.

Sen. Scott Meyer, a self-styled "free market believer," said his bill would allow drinking establishments and convenience stores to meet the demands of night shift workers, fishers and other early risers. The Grand Forks Republican added that bars and restaurants in his district have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and giving the struggling businesses an opportunity to open three hours earlier could help them make up ground.

Sen. Scott Meyer, R-Grand Forks, presents a bill to the Senate Industry, Business and Labor Committee on Tuesday, Jan. 26. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
Sen. Scott Meyer, R-Grand Forks, presents a bill to the Senate Industry, Business and Labor Committee on Tuesday, Jan. 26. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

Sunday business restrictions have been on the books since North Dakota became a state in 1889, but the Legislature has shown a greater willingness to loosen regulations in the last decade. Lawmakers voted in 2015 to allow bars and liquor stores to sell alcohol at 11 a.m. instead of noon and approved in 2019 a significant repeal of Sunday morning shopping laws for most retail businesses.

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Still, blue laws remain a hot topic of debate in the halls of the state Capitol. Supporters of the mandatory business closures argue Sunday morning should be reserved for church or relaxation, but opponents say the rules stifle commerce and personal liberties.

Meyer's bill has attracted five co-sponsors and the backing of the hospitality industry, but Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner said he isn't on board. The Dickinson Republican said lawmakers have "opened it up enough" in recent years.

Wardner said he's personally opposed to the bill for religious reasons, noting that he sets Sunday morning aside for church. Meyer said many North Dakotans have unconventional schedules, adding that he attends church on Wednesday.

The committee chairman, Sen. Jerry Klein, voted against the bill on Tuesday, citing the issue of alcohol addiction. Still, Klein said he recognized some of the merits of Meyer's proposal. The Fessenden Republican noted that booze vendors in border cities would gain a competitive advantage over their Minnesota counterparts, which must abide by an 11 a.m. rule on Sundays.

"When (Minnesotans) are coming over to buy their cigarettes, they'll buy beer, too," Klein said.

Sen. Doug Larsen, R-Mandan, said he favored the bill because it gives businesses and patrons more freedom to choose what they'd like to do with their Sunday mornings. He voted for the bill even though he's a "religious guy."

"I believe Jesus' first miracle was changing water into wine. He did this at a wedding, and it wasn't because they didn't bring any at all. It's because they ran out. And they didn't say, 'Well, I guess we're out — we should be done for tonight.' They kept going." Larsen said. "I don't want to paint this to say that all of Christ's followers are alcoholics ... but I think that to say we shouldn't do this because of church is a little bit too far."