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State’s blue law could become thing of the past

Representative from Bowman leads vote to repeal law; Bowman businesses feeling unsure

A man walks into Bowman’s Shopko, a business that could be one of the many in North Dakota that would change its Sunday hours if the blue law is repealed. (Pioneer Photo by Bryce Martin)

By BRYCE MARTIN
Pioneer Editor | bmartin@countrymedia.net

Many have criticized North Dakota’s blue laws as being antiquated and unnecessary, prompting the House of Representatives last month to bring the law up for discussion.

The House held a vote Jan. 30 but failed to amass enough support to repeal the law, which prohibits certain businesses from opening prior to noon on Sundays.

But Rep. Keith Kempenich of Bowman brought the law up for re-evaluation the following day, and another vote was held. This time, in a 48-46 decision, the repeal passed.

Now the law’s fate rests in the hands of the Senate.

“It wasn’t really a plan,” Kempenich told The Pioneer last week. “I told some of the people over here that morning that I probably would support bringing it back.”

Kempenich, a Republican, suggested several of the legislators opposing the law were new and weren’t necessarily comfortable bringing the issue back for discussion a second time. So Kempenich did it for them.

“You can’t legislate this stuff,” he explained, offering a staunch opposition to the blue law. “We’ve been messing around with these for 20 years. I just felt it was time that we moved on from this issue.”

The law has been in effect since North Dakota was admitted as a state and has remained unchanged since 1991. In February 1991, the state legislation approved to lessen the restrictions of the Sunday opening law, allowing most businesses to operate on Sundays, but no earlier than noon. It makes it a Class B misdemeanor to operate before noon Sunday, though exceptions exist for restaurants, hotels hospitals and other businesses

Kempenich agreed that it’s an antiquated law for today’s society, and partially rooted in religious values.

“You can’t force somebody to go to church. You can’t force families to be together,” he said. “It was just something that I felt — it’s got to come from within. And people can’t legislate stuff like that.”

A stipulation was attached to the repeal that would still give businesses the opportunity to remain closed until noon; it would not mandate that they be open.

If an employee requests that time off or has religious convictions, the business would still have to grant that, Kempenich explained.

While Kempenich suggested the bill is more targeted toward larger cities, Bowman has its own tangle with the issue.

Bars, liquor stores and at least one retail business have been forced to remain closed Sunday mornings under current law. But not everyone supports the repeal.

Scott Sola, store manager of Shopko in Bowman, admitted that the law does take away from some family time on Sunday mornings.

“It is what it is,” he said. “There’s not a whole lot that I can do about it.”

He said Shopko would likely opt to open around 9 a.m. on Sundays if the repeal is repeal since stores in states without blue laws do so.

“So I’m sure we would be, too,” he said.

Chrissy Blankenbaker, who owns the new Lucky’s Liquor in Bowman, said she probably wouldn’t take advantage of the law’s repeal, but because of her store’s location.

“We would probably not open earlier on Sundays given we have a church in the near proximity,” she said.

Kempenich said that smaller employers would likely need some type of “buy-in” if they wanted to open earlier on Sundays.

Each individual is going to approach the issue differently, according to Kempenich who said the younger generation seems more supportive of repealing the law while the older generation generally is not.

“But it gives them the choice,” he said.