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CARLOS GONZALEZ • Star Tribune,

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Eleven other states prohibit Sunday liquor sales. They are Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Texas, Indiana, Montana and Utah.

End Minnesota ban on Sunday liquor sales, but with limited municipal flexibility

  • Article by: Editorial Board
  • Star Tribune
  • March 14, 2014 - 6:00 PM

Sundays, like so many things, aren’t what they used to be. For the puritanical New Englanders who settled Minnesota in the 1840s and 1850s, Sunday was a day of worship and socially enforced inactivity during which even newspaper reading was actively discouraged.

Today, you are free to pursue a wide range of activities, including reading this newspaper and its website. Some will go to work. Many will shop for household provisions.

Sunday has become America’s third-busiest grocery shopping day, behind Saturday and Friday. That stands to reason, particularly in Minnesota, which has the nation’s fifth-highest labor force participation rates for both men and women. The weekly rhythm of family life changed when the share of women in the workforce surged in the 1970s and ’80s. Household chores, including shopping, shifted to weekends in many families. Many retailers accommodated them by adding Sunday hours.

But two categories of retailers — liquor stores and auto dealers — have not opened on Sundays. By state law, they cannot. The auto dealers’ situation is a topic for another day and, most likely, another legislative session. This year, a range of bills with bipartisan backing are in the Legislature’s hopper to allow some or all Minnesota liquor stores to open their doors on Sundays.

It’s time. The ban on Sunday liquor sales is a vestige of Prohibition, which ended 80 years and three months ago. The Sunday sales ban was a bow to the anti-alcohol Protestants — a politically powerful force in Minnesota — who sold the nation on Prohibition before its enactment in 1919. Prohibition was a failure. It ran roughshod over people of other faiths, customs and backgrounds while spurring a rise in organized crime and eroding Americans’ respect for the rule of law.

Today the Sunday liquor sales ban survives as an anachronism that inconveniences Minnesotans for little good public policy reason. The state’s interest in regulating alcohol sales lies in the realm of public safety, not in helping adherents of one faith tradition preserve their sabbath. Opponents of the change fret about greater availability of an addictive substance. But GOP Rep. Jenifer Loon of Eden Prairie, a sponsor of two of the Sunday-opening bills, says that a move to Sunday sales in other states resulted in no increase in arrests for alcohol-impaired driving.

That said, how best to ensure public safety is not easily discerned from the State Capitol. Local authorities may have legitimate safety reasons to shutter stores in some clearly defined areas on Sundays. Two of this year’s bills allow municipalities to exercise their judgment. The one we prefer would lift the statewide ban on Sunday sales, but allow local officials to retain it in narrowly specified, safety-sensitive areas of their communities.

Lifting the statewide ban would not force stores to open on Sundays. But many store owners say new competitive pressure would compel them to become seven-day-per-week operations, raising their costs without increasing their sales. It’s why many liquor retailers oppose relaxing the so-called “blue law” against Sunday sales.

But there, too, local circumstances vary. Stores that operate near the state’s borders already lose potential customers each Sunday to competition in Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota, all of which allow Sunday sales. It may be no coincidence that Loon’s Senate counterpart in calling for a relaxation of the Sunday ban is DFL Sen. Roger Reinert of Duluth. He notes that the first retail establishment that drivers encounter on the Wisconsin side of every bridge from his city to Superior is a liquor store.

Allowing for some local variation seems a reasonable accommodation when the state reverses a policy that has been in force in one fashion or another for 95 years. But those variations ought to be rare exceptions rooted in public safety. Government should otherwise not interfere with retailers of legal products seeking to meet the needs and desires of their customers in a timely fashion. Sundays have changed for Minnesotans, and retailers of all kinds should be permitted to change to accommodate them.

© 2014 Star Tribune