Why you can buy a beer in North Dakota on Sunday morning but not a belt at Wal-Mart

On a reporting trip to North Dakota last year, I woke up bright and early Sunday and enjoyed a not-so-healthy breakfast at McDonald's.

When I finished eating, I had an hour to kill before services at the Bismarck church I was covering for The Christian Chronicle. Since I was driving that afternoon to Black Hills Bible Camp in South Dakota, I decided to visit the closest Wal-Mart. I needed to buy a few snacks and supplies.

But when I got to the Wal-Mart — which looked just like the 24-hour supercenter near my home in Oklahoma City — I found the parking lot strangely empty. Even odder, the store's automatic doors refused to open for me. Weird, I thought.

However, Google Maps quickly located a Super Target just down the street. I discovered that it, too, was closed.

I was reminded of my experience when The Associated Press reported this week that North Dakota is debating whether to lift its Sunday morning shopping ban.

Of course, there's a strong religion angle — and kudos to AP for stressing it:

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota residents can order alcohol at a restaurant or bar late Sunday morning but must wait until afternoon to go shopping because of a ban — rooted in religious tradition — that some legislators say no longer makes much sense.
Critics of the nation's strictest so-called blue law began another effort Monday to strip it from the books. Some such restrictions have existed since North Dakota became a state in 1889, stemming from fears that visiting a retail store on Sunday morning would compete with church and erode family values, leaving little time for rest.
"I'm annoyed that I have to wait until Sunday afternoon to shop," said Fargo Democratic Rep. Pam Anderson, who has introduced legislation that would abolish the shopping restrictions. She said ending the prohibition would add tax revenue for the state and provide more employment opportunities.
A House committee began mulling the bill on Monday but took no immediate action. Anderson called it a "falsehood" that allowing Sunday morning sales would impact the number of people in the pews.

I'm not certain the politician seeking the law's repeal is the best source to assess whether Sunday morning sales would hurt church attendance.

I'm more interested in knowing what North Dakota's people of faith think about Anderson's proposal. Do they agree with the law? Or do they support the freedom of businesses to open whenever they want? Do they believe it's the state's role — or not — to mandate a time for rest and worship?

In case I haven't made it clear, I really wish the AP had interviewed a few pastors and/or church members for the story — perhaps a Lutheran or two given that denomination's strong presence in the state.

The wire service does quote one religious official, but not on the specific question of whether the law helps church attendance:

North Dakota Catholic Conference director Christopher Dodson told lawmakers that the purpose of the Sunday-closing law is "not to impose times of worship, nor is it to demand adherence to religious doctrine."
The intent, he said, "is to provide a common period of rest and relaxation to the benefit of families and communities."

In case you're unfamiliar with the term, "blue laws" were called that because they were written on blue paper, as I noted in a 2003 Associated Press story. Why were they written on blue paper? That, I couldn't tell you ...

The AP does explain why you can buy a beer in North Dakota at 11 a.m. Sunday but not a belt at Wal-Mart:

North Dakota slowly has relaxed its blue laws over the years, including those aimed at Sunday shopping. North Dakota law once required most businesses to stay closed on Sundays, but that was changed in 1985 to allow grocery stores to open. The Legislature in 1991 allowed most businesses to open on Sundays but they couldn't open their doors before noon.
In 2015 the Legislature voted to allow restaurants and bars to begin serving alcohol at 11 a.m. on Sundays, instead of noon. Proponents said North Dakota's booze restrictions put cities bordering other states at a disadvantage because those states allow for earlier sales on Sundays. Backers of the Sunday shopping legislation are also using that argument, especially those in the eastern cities of Fargo and Grand Forks that compete for Sunday shoppers with open stores just across the Minnesota border.

Interesting.

After finding Wal-Mart and Target closed, I ended up at Cracker Barrel. No, I couldn't buy any merchandise before noon. But while waiting for church to start, I looked around at the old-fashioned trinkets and people-watched the breakfast crowd.

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