BISMARCK — North Dakota senators sank a bill Thursday, Feb. 4, that would have permitted bars and liquor stores to sell alcohol on Sunday mornings.

Senate Bill 2220 came out of committee with a recommendation to pass, but it failed by a narrow margin of 21 to 26 on the floor despite drawing endorsements from several lawmakers. The bill would have pushed the start time for the Sunday sale of alcohol from 11 a.m. to 8 a.m., a move opposed by some legislators who have argued that this time should be reserved for church and relaxation.

"To oppose this bill because it may give an otherwise parishioner another option (than) attending religious service seems to be an attempt to legislate morality," said Sen. Doug Larsen, R-Mandan, who argued that expanding alcohol sales times would benefit many business owners who want the bill to pass. "Less government, less business restriction and more citizen freedom: That is what this bill does."

Sen. Scott Meyer, R-Grand Forks, who introduced the bill, pitched it as a way to help businesses that have taken a major hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. "It's just three hours. It doesn't cost a dime," he said.

North Dakota's Sunday alcohol rule is a holdover from its once-strict "blue laws," which have been on the books since the state's founding in 1889. Over the last decade lawmakers have loosened these regulations, voting in 2015 to allow bars and liquor stores to open at 11 a.m., an hour earlier than before. In 2019 they approved a significant repeal of Sunday morning shopping laws for most retail businesses.

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Sen. Jerry Klein, R-Fessenden, was the lone lawmaker to speak against the bill on the floor.

"I've been here when they extended the hours to 2 a.m., I've been here when we lowered the time to 11 a.m.," he said. "It took me a couple of sessions to get there, but I finally supported those. I'm not there yet, Mr. President, that's why I'm not supporting it now."

Readers can reach Forum News Service reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.