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Why can't we buy liquor on Sundays?

Why can't we buy liquor on Sundays?

In an election race filled with disagreements over taxes and health care, the three candidates for Minnesota governor have found common ground on one less significant, though popular, topic: Sunday liquor sales.

In a debate earlier this month in Rochester, all three agreed that alcohol sales should be permitted every day of the week. The state is one of a dozen in the country that bans liquor stores from opening on Sunday.

"My great-grandfather would turn over in his grave if he knew I was for selling anything on Sundays," said Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat. "But I don't think we should distinguish liquor and automobiles from other commodities that people want to buy."

Dayton pointed out that a growing portion of Minnesota's population has a day of faith other than Sunday, making it difficult to justify prohibition on one day versus another. Independence Party candidate Hannah Nicolett -- who describes herself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal -- agreed with the governor. She said it's unfair for the state to favor one religion's holy day over another's.

"Any legal product should be able to be sold on any day of the week," said Nicolett. "And if you're a business owner and you want to be closed on Sunday, more power to you, go ahead."

The Republican challenger, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, gave the final and perhaps most enthusiastic endorsement for Sunday liquor sales.

"This is frustrating to me because everybody says let's do it, but the last two years there's been a big push, under all DFL control, and we can't get it done for some reason," said Johnson. "So we'll get it done if I'm governor."

There you have it: all three gubernatorial candidates from Minnesota's top political parties are in support of repealing a seemingly archaic and religiously-biased law. This will breeze right through the Legislature, right?

Not so fast. Despite having the support of the governor and the majority of voters, the state Legislature has squashed four bills supporting Sunday sales in the past five years.


"Blue laws" were first introduced in the U.S. in the colonial days to outlaw certain secular activities on the Sabath. Banned activities included shopping, working and engaging in sexual intercourse. Violations of blue laws were subject to fines and public whippings.

While most blue laws faded away after the Revolutionary War, some continue to exist to this day. The most common restrictions involve the sales of two very different commodities: automobiles and alcohol.

At the start of the 21st century, more than two dozen states had Sunday liquor bans. That number now stands at 12. The list is made up of mostly Bible Belt states: Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, West Virginia, Indiana, Utah, Montana and Minnesota.

Source: Distilled Spirits Council of the United States

Recent proposals

There has been a push in recent years to legalize Sunday sales in Minnesota. But each time a bill is brought to the House or Senate floor, it is defeated with bipartisan opposition.

In the previous legislative session, the Minnesota Senate rejected a repeal of the ban 42-22, opting instead for a scaled-down liquor bill that allows tap rooms to be open on Sundays with municipal approval.

The defeat wasn't shocking. A year ago, a similar proposal to allow Sunday liquor sales was rejected by the Minnesota House by a vote of 106-21. It was the third time in four years the House proposal had failed to get at least 20 percent of the vote (the full bill was not brought to the House floor in 2014). 

Support & Opposition

Source: Public Policy Polling (2013)

A 2013 poll by the liberal-leaning group Public Policy Polling found 62 percent of Minnesotas supported Sunday liquor sales. Young adults showed the strongest support for change, with more than 74 percent of people ages 18-45 in favor of repealing the Sunday ban.

A recent survey at the Minnesota State Fair showed similar results. Of the more than 7,000 fairgoers who completed the nonscientific survey, 64 percent said liquor stores should be allowed to open on Sundays, compared to 28 percent opposed. 

The editorial boards from a number of Minnesota newspapers, including the Post-Bulletin, have also endorsed ending the states "outdated laws of a bygone Prohibition era."

But like subsidies for the Minnesota VIkings' new stadium, lawmakers are going against public opinion to please powerful interest groups.

Lobbyists representing union workers and liquor stores have fought to defeat any bill allowing even the smallest changes to the state's current liquor laws, including the sale of growlers by small breweries on Sundays. They argue Sunday sales would increase costs to businesses and force people to work an extra day without any additional benefits. In their view, people will still buy the same amount of booze regardless of how many days a week stores are open.

It's important to note, however, that not one of the proposed bills requires stores to open on Sunday -- it just gives them the option to do so. 

What's next?

Sen. Roger Reinart, DFL-Duluth, who has proposed several bills to repeal the ban, hopes to get the proposal on the ballot so voters can decide whether they want to buy liquor on Sundays.

But that would require the Legislature to act first. According to Minnesota law:

A majority of the members of each house of the legislature must vote to propose amendments to the constitution. The proposed amendments must be published with the laws passed at the same session. The proposed Amendment must be submitted to the people for their approval or rejection at a general election. If a majority of all of the people voting at the election vote to ratify an amendment, it becomes a part of the Constitution.

With such bipartisan disinterest in changing the law, it appears Minnesotans will be left with the same three options for the foreseeable future: stocking up on Saturdays, driving to Wisconsin or Iowa, or buying that awful 3.2 percent beer.

(Cover photo: Daniel Oines / Creative Commons)

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