President’s Column: Defeating an Old Religious Blue Law

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By August Berkshire

Headshot of August Berkshire, smiling.

Currently, liquor stores in Minnesota are not allowed to sell intoxicating liquor on Sundays, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day, and they must close two hours earlier than normal on Christmas Eve. This law (Statute 340A.504) is clearly an old blue law enacted for religious reasons.

This year, identical bills were introduced in the House (HF 0375) and Senate (SF 0197) that would treat Sundays, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Eve like any other day as far as liquor sales at liquor stores go. Liquor stores could sell liquor on those days, though no store would be forced to be open on any day. Sales would still be banned on Christmas Day.

Although the arguments for and against this are today framed in terms of economics, it doesn’t change the past religious motivation for the current law.

Almost every bill introduced into the state legislature gets referred to one or more committees before it goes to the floor for a final vote. If a bill doesn’t pass out of a committee, it is usually dead, though there are still parliamentary ways to bring it to a vote of the full House or Senate.

Senate bill SF 0197 was referred to the Senate’s Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee and a public hearing was held on March 16, 2011. I attended that hearing to testify on behalf of Minnesota Atheists. 

Various witnesses were called, for and against the bill.  The arguments were primarily on the grounds of economics and safety. The bill’s sponsor, Senator Roger Reinert from Duluth, noted that Sunday was the second busiest shopping day of the week and that all four states that surround Minnesota allow liquor stores to be open on Sundays.  He noted Duluth liquor sales that were lost to nearby Superior, Wisconsin on Sundays.

One witness stated that if the economic issue was not wishing to spread six days of business into seven days, that it made more sense for liquor stores to voluntarily close on a low-volume day like Tuesday than on Sunday. 

Committee member Senator Michael Jungbauer noted that although TCF Bank chooses to be open on Sundays, not all other banks feel obliged to follow suit. Thus liquor stores that would wish to voluntarily close on Sundays may not feel as much pressure to stay open as they think. (Nevertheless, Senator Jungbauer, who said he could go either way with the bill, eventually voted against it.)

Committee member Senator Ann Rest noted the inconsistency of arguing in favor of freedom of economic choice but still banning sales on Christmas Day. She announced that she would move to amend the bill to allow Christmas Day sales as well. Another senator spoke out in favor of this amendment, but said he was nevertheless going to vote against the entire bill. Senator Rest herself also eventually voted against the entire bill, even after it was amended to her liking. 

This made me wonder if Senator Rest was ultimately trying to “poison pill” the legislation by amending it to make it unpopular (i.e., “Liquor stores being open on Christmas – oh, no!”). However, her argument to include Christmas was logical.

I had not testified yet, but we agreed with Senator Rest, for slightly different reasons: that banning sales on Christmas Day favored a particular religion.

I finally gave my testimony (which can be found on page 11). Then Senator Rest moved to amend the bill so that liquor sales at liquor stores would be allowed 365 days a year. The amendment passed on a close voice vote.

In his closing remarks, Senator Reinert had noted that there was one witness that had not been heard from in the testimony: the overwhelming number of Minnesotans who want liquor stores open on Sundays.

Then it was time for a vote on the entire bill, as amended. A role call was asked for by a committee member.  I sat in my chair anxiously making hatch marks by the words Yes and No on a piece of scratch paper.  The bill passed by an 8-7 vote. 

We’ll never know if our testimony swayed any votes, but the victory felt good. We got everything we wanted.  The bill now moves to the Senate Finance Committee. 

After the hearing I went to the two press offices in the basement of the Capitol to hand reporters written copies of my testimony. Most said they had watched the testimony on closed circuit TV and had seen me.

Our testimony was reported in the Duluth News Tribune , the Fargo Forum and its sister paper the Grand Forks Herald, and

The companion bill in the Minnesota House (HF 0375), sponsored by Representative Phyllis Kahn, was referred to the House Commerce and Regulatory Reform Committee.  Like the original wording of the Senate’s version, this version does not include Christmas.

We will continue to follow this issue and to testify as we are able.

Minnesota Atheists

Positive Atheism in Action Since 1991