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Minnesota’s Puritan side: We still have ‘blue laws’ — but for how long?

For much of the 20th century, it was illegal for a majority of Minnesotans to work on Sunday. Loud noises, horse racing and most buying and trading was banned that day, with the exception of the sale of newspapers, drugs and fruit. Even those activities had to be done in a quiet, orderly manner.

Dating back to colonial America, so-called “blue laws” restricted various activities on Sunday as a day of worship and rest. It took hundreds of years in some cases, but states have slowly repealed or deemed unconstitutional nearly all of the old-world Sunday bans.

But in Minnesota, two notable blue laws are still on the books today. Want to buy booze on Sunday? You're out of luck in Minnesota, unless it's 3.2 percent beer. Interested in visiting a car dealership and possibly purchasing a new vehicle? It will have to wait until Monday.

Each year a proposal in the Legislature to lift the ban on Sunday liquor sales is shot down by a powerful lobby of union representatives and liquor-store owners. The ban on Sunday car sales is rarely discussed at the Capitol and continues at the behest of auto dealers, which enjoy a day where they and all their competitors must be closed.

But that could soon change. A growing movement led by craft brewers is trying to put the pressure on legislators to lift the Sunday liquor ban, and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton recently told the Associated Press that he'd sign a bill to do away with all of state's remaining blue laws.

“Commerce is well enough established as seven days and nights a week now,” Dayton said. “For us to say it doesn’t apply to this or doesn’t apply to that really doesn’t make much sense. There are an increasing number of Minnesotans for which Sunday isn’t a religious holiday."

States cling to Sunday bans

Minnesota is not alone in clinging to the last vestiges of the Puritan blue laws. Many states still prohibit hunting in various forms on Sundays. In Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine, blue laws prohibit most retail stores and large grocery stores from opening on Thanksgiving and Christmas. In Massachusetts, retail workers staffed on Sunday must be paid time and a half.

Illinois bans horse racing on Sundays and in 1982 actually added a law on the books that prohibited Sunday car sales. Bergen County in New Jersey is notable for having some of the strictest blue laws in the nation, kept in place through countywide referendum. The county bans the sale of clothing, furniture and home appliances on Sundays. The city of Paramus, N.J., allows only the sale of food, gasoline and other items deemed necessary on Sunday.

In all, Minnesota is one of just 12 states that still restrict Sunday liquor sales. The North Star State is an outlier in the Midwest, with no bordering state sharing the same restrictions. Sunday liquor sales restrictions are more popular in the south, enforced in states like Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, among others.

States restricting Sunday liquor sales

blue laws sunday sales
Source: Distilled Spirits Council
Map image: CC/Wikimedia/Theshibboleth
Twelve states, including Minnesota, restrict Sunday liquor sales within their borders.

That’s not the case with Sunday auto sales, which is also banned in neighboring states like North Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois. In all, more than a dozen states have Sunday car sales restrictions, while states like Texas and Utah do not allow car sales on consecutive weekend days (auto dealers can choose which day to remain open).

States restricting Sunday car sales

blue laws map
States in darker shade of blue ban Sunday auto sales outright. Lighter-shaded states have the following restrictions:
Maryland allows Sunday car sales in only counties of Prince George's, Montgomery and Howard.
Michigan restricts Sunday sales to counties with less than 130,000 people.
Texas and Utah prohibit car sales over consecutive weekend days.

Uphill climb for repealing blue laws

One of the perennial arguments for relaxing the Sunday liquor ban is lost business to neighboring states. DFL Sen. Roger Reinert, the author of the Sunday liquor sales bill, says he regularly sees business hop from his hometown of Duluth over the border to Wisconsin on Sundays.

But the issue of Sunday liquor sales makes strange and powerful political bedfellows. Liquor store owners from across the state are organized by the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association (MLBA), a powerful lobbying force at the Capitol. Mom and Pop liquor shops argue Sunday sales would force them to be open seven days a week but just stretch out same revenue they’d make over six days. Each year the MLBA joins forces with the Teamsters Joint Council 32 union and liquor industry lobbyists to squash efforts to repeal the ban.  

Their power has been easy to see in the last several legislative sessions. In 2012, a proposal to lift the ban on Sunday liquor sales failed on a 25-97 vote in the House. Last session saw one of the most dismal results yet for advocates: A House amendment to repeal the ban failed on the floor with a 21-106 vote. It didn’t help matters that the Legislature was also debating a 7-cent per-drink tax hike on alcohol.

"When the hard votes have been taken in the last two years, this issue has been defeated on the House floor with substantial bipartisan margins," MLBA lobbyist Joe Bagnoli said.

But advocates are convinced the political landscape is changing. Last session marked the first time the Sunday liquor sales bill had a hearing in both chambers of the Legislature in the same year, and craft brewers supportive of Sunday sales have begun putting pressure on key legislators.  

The goal is to bring some of the wide public support for Sunday sales to the Capitol. A Public Policy Polling survey in May of last year puts approval ratings for Sunday liquor sales in Minnesota at 62 percent, with bipartisan support.

“Activity is ramping up,” said Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, who chairs the House Commerce Committee and regularly works on liquor legislation. Atkins hasn’t taken a stance on Sunday liquor sales. In the past he has left the proposal out of omnibus liquor bills for fear it would sink the entire proposal.

“There’s been an organized effort on the Sunday sales front,” he said. “The members of the House and Senate commerce committees have been receiving a lot of emails.”

The ban on Sunday car sales is not a hotly debated topic at the Capitol. It’s been years since anyone carried a bill to change the law, but Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, thinks any remaining blue laws will be in trouble as soon as the ban on Sunday liquor sales is gone.  

“I think one can draw the conclusion that the arguments are the same for each of them,” said Drazkowski, a longtime supporter of Sunday liquor sales. “The car dealers are apprehensive about seeing Sunday liquor passed because that would leave them standing alone.”

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Comments (30)

Strange bedfellows

I get why liquor store owners, especially smaller ones, might want to keep the Sunday liquor sales ban. But the Teamsters Union? I don't get that.

I can't imagine on an issue like this that all of the liquor store owners are all that happy with these bans on Sunday sales. Some major grocery store owners would also like to see the ban on grocery store sales of wine and beer lifted. I can see some alliances being formed here.

A fond memory

One fond memory, now long gone, was the quiet that erupted on a Sunday. The stillness, in comparison to the rest of the week, was marvelous. A wonderful human moment. Now the corporate clarion call "I can't afford not to do business on Sunday" rules. Human need is consigned to it's proper place, beneath corporate need, because unliving entities deserve priority over human quality of life. The new America, not what our grandfathers fought for.

You can't lay this on corporate need.

Mark, check the main article. The groups preventing Sunday sales are the businesses and unions; it is the citizenry that seems to support the change. Whether that amounts to reduced quality of life is subjective. In my youth I, too, can recall a calmer Sunday, but I also thought it strange that you could not buy meat in the grocery store in Chicagoland after a certain time (the butcher union, it was explained to me). My daughter recently went shopping for a car for the first time and got mad at me when I reminded her that she could not actually make a purchase at a dealership on a Sunday in this state. As to what my grandfather fought for in World War I, I really couldn't say it included Sunday liquor sales. If I am not sure, I am pretty sure you do not know what he thought.

Re: a fond memory

My desire to shop on Sunday doesn't prevent you and your family from achieving "quiet." Those who desire "quiet" on Sunday can still have it.

No reason

To begin, I’m a life-long teetotaler, so the presence or absence of liquor available for sale on a Sunday makes no difference to me. Aside from religious objections (and Mark Wallek’s nostalgic remembrance), there’s no reason for Blue Laws to remain in effect. Insisting on doing so is the equivalent of the king trying to get the ocean and its tides to obey his commands.

Allowing Sunday sales is not the same thing as requiring them. I think not much will change if Sunday liquor sales are permitted. The argument that family-run and/or small liquor stores will be forced out of business by the big boys if Sunday sales are allowed strikes me as specious. If I'm wrong, at worst, it turns store owners into corporate employees, which won’t be fun, but it’s already happened to many, many other people whose businesses have gone belly-up. Republicans will find the line about the “creative destruction” of capitalism convenient in that situation. If I'm right, at best, it won’t be true. The customer service allegedly supplied by the small, friendly, neighborhood booze supplier will trump the cold and faceless corporate operation. I suspect it’s the latter that craft brewers are counting on.

As for car sales, I bought my first genuinely new car in nearly 20 years in October – on a Tuesday. Arbitrarily limiting auto sales to particular days suffers from the same specious reasoning as doing it for liquor sales. Auto sales people might not want to work 7 days a week, but most of them won’t have to. If they find themselves on the manager’s schedule from Sunday through Friday, well, welcome to the world of most other retail employees. My guess is that dealers will be able to find part-timers who won’t mind selling cars on weekends. The same is likely true of service technicians as well. Plenty of other service-oriented businesses and jobs are 7-days-a-week operations.

And, once again, *allowing* Sunday sales is not the same thing as *requiring* them. I deal regularly with a retailer in New York City that routinely closes on “the Sabbath.” They’ve done just fine, thank you, in competition with corporate entities in their field that are available more or less constantly. Would they make more money if they were open all the time? Probably.

If your religious convictions are such that you feel strongly that business should not be conducted on Sunday, then by all means, do not conduct business. If your income takes a hit as a result, well, how serious are you about your religious convictions? In a consumer context, the same thing applies. For example, do not go to a restaurant. Do not purchase gasoline. Do not attend a movie or play, or a professional sporting event. And so on. If you’re not willing to forego any and all commercial activity on Sunday, then requiring everyone else to do so is imposing your personal religious views on the public. I think the constitution frowns on such conduct.

Mr. Wallek is free to simply not take part in Sunday sales – of anything – if he so chooses. I sometimes share his dismay at the commercialization of just about everything, but like many others, I’ve run out of milk unexpectedly, or forgotten to fill the car’s gas tank the day before, or in some other fashion found myself in need of a good or service on a Sunday. I like having at least the necessities available, and if I can buy a multi-thousand-dollar television set on Sunday, why not an automobile?

Sunday liquor and auto sales.

As long as the sellers and distributors and their lobbyists keep the money flowing to the politicians they will have their way. The politicians will do whatever their masters tell them to do.

Car Dealer Blue Law is Ridiculous

To me, car sales on Sundays should be a consumer protection issue. Many people only have the weekend to make this significant, large purchase. When you are restricted to just one day, it is very hard to do much comparison shopping. The internet helps, but it is still a long way from White Bear to Inver Grove to Burnsville - especially when test driving used cars.

I've heard this described as a labor law protecting car salesmen so they have a day off. Seriously? Why are they so different from appliance salespeople, real estate agents, or any other retail sales person?

Both of these laws are ridiculous.

Sunday liquor and Auto Sales

With so many deaths and serious injuries being caused by drunk drivers, why this pressure to sell liquor in stores on Sundays, or in grocery and drug stores?

Do we want more liquor sales and more deaths and injuries?

Has anybody ever had to go without a car because of no Sunday auto sales? Not with Craig's list around.

Sunday Sales of liquor

The current system tells people that would like to like to have a drink on Sunday that they have to drive to a restaurant or bar. If a person could pick up some beverage from an off-sale store they could enjoy it at home without driving after drinking.

The Irony

The irony of small businesses (liquor stores and car dealers) - who seem to complain of the heavy hand of government imposing on their freedoms - asking for the heavy hand of government to continue it's control of Sunday sales.

One would think they'd oppose the ban on Sunday sales as a matter of principle.

How strange

These blue laws seem very strange to me. For 40 years I lived in California, where any type of liquor can be had at any supermarket, seven days a week; the only no-sale hours are from 2AM to 6AM (i.e., while the bars are closed). I don't recall California having any particular liquor problems. Indeed, it seems alcohol abuse is more prevalent here in Minnesota.

For those who deny any religious underpinning to these laws, let's try moving the "no sale" days to, oh say Wednesday. Maybe then the sheer absurdity of it would be more apparent.

How about...

we change the law to say that a liquor store has to be closed at least one day per week, but the individual stores get to choose the day?

Closure

Very sensible, Joel.

Best yet

Best idea yet!

Why?

Why require liquor stores to close for even one day? If they want to stay open seven days, let them.

Oh...I don't disagree with you...

but if we're going to have a law on the books that requires being closed one day a week, why must it be Sunday?

I don't know...

I've lived in several states that have no blue laws, but I have no issue with Minnesota's. I like being able to go and look at cars in a dealer lot without being bothered by sales people. And since we run errands on Friday or Saturday, it's automatic that we buy any alcohol then. Besides, if someone is getting the shakes because they can't make it a day without booze or run out before Monday, it seems that Blue Laws should be the least of their concerns.

I Do Know

Nice straw man there, Jason.

I'm usually running around taking care of other errands, at the girlfriend's place, or busy with volunteer activities on Saturday. Often Sunday is my only day to get around for grocery shopping. And while I don't need a drink because of the DTs, it would be nice to at least have the option of stocking up for the week.

I don't think so

Go ahead and try to wander the lots on Sunday. The entrances will be blocked by cars. While I've not tested this, it's pretty likely that you're also on camera when you trespass on Sundays, as well.

As far as living a day without those sales, yep, it's sure possible. Obviously. But there's absolutely no reason for it. And, what if I want wine with my Sunday dinner and I'm out? Dagnabit! I want it! And I shouldn't have to bow to anyone's religious beliefs about whether or not I should be allowed to on a random day of the week.

Sunday car lots

Actually, lots of people go walking around car lots on Sundays to just look. You may not have ever noticed this before, but some Sunday (when it's not hideously cold) make a point of watching for it and you're almost certain to spot "window shoppers" wandering around the lots of your local dealerships.

I'm sure the security cameras are on, but dealerships don't discourage this practice as they know it is another way to help make sales during the subsequent week.

No straw man intended, Todd.

There's a liquor store on every corner...how long out of anyone's day does it take to stop in? Sorry, I just don't get the fact that this is a big deal for some people.

The big deal?

I like to group my errands to reduce the number of car trips for many reasons including gas, travel time, traffic. You said you like to do your errands on Friday or Saturday. I assume that means you group your errands too. It works best in your schedule to go on Saturday. It works best in my schedule to go on Sunday. I am pretty sure I am not the only one. Since I run errands on Sunday, its automatic that I buy any alcohol then. Oh wait, that's what you said about Saturday. Would you mind if we changed the day liquor stores are closed from Sunday to Saturday to make it more convenient for me? Of course if you are getting the shakes because you can't make it a day without booze or run out before Sunday, it seems that Blue Laws should be the least of your concerns.

Likewise ...

I don't understand why keeping these antiquated blue laws is so important to some people who aren't even involved. If you don't want to buy liquor or cars on Sunday, then don't! Why should your personal shopping choices be imposed on others?

Suzanne,

I assume that Sunday is not the only day you venture out and about? Once again, there's liquor stores everywhere...one hardly needs to make plans to stop at one. Looks like a I touched a nerve ...and my personal shopping choices have nothing to do with it, rather the vast majority of store owners want to remain closed on Sunday as it's the only day off they get. I'm friends with a couple of them and having worked retail years ago myself, I get that they would like to have a day with their families than be forced to open to remain competitive because some people want to pout that it's way too hard to stop in at any other time during the week...same scenario applies with car-salesmen. I've yet to meet one that's dying to be there on Sunday.

Jayson

Sunday is the day I run errands with my car. I bike or bus the rest of the time. So, I do need to make special plans if I stop at a liquor store. I don't know where you live, but there are no liquor stores within walking distance of me. Sunday is the day I have a block of time to run errands. What is so hard to understand about that. Like yours, my personal shopping choices have nothing to do with why a specific business is not allowed to be open on a Sunday. I have nothing against small business owners setting their own schedules. I am not advocating that they are required to be open. I am advocating that they not be required to be closed. I am sure the small business owners of dry cleaners, restaurants, hardware stores, and others would also like a day off. Hey, you have a great idea; let's tell all small businesses they are now required to be closed on Sundays.

Closing days

I actually know of a number of small businesses that close on Mondays (and sometimes Sundays). It's like they still have a "weekend off", but they're just shifting their own personal weekend by a day to enable them to take advantage of the fact that most of the population has Saturdays and Sundays off. This way they are still spared a seven-day workweek while not missing out on the moneymaking opportunities each weekend provides.

Seems smart to me!

Here's what cracks me up:

So many business advocates/libertarians/Ayn Randians howl so loudly that there should be no regulations and that the market is self correcting. So why are these same business advocates so insistent that this approach can't possibly work in this case??

Sunday care sales

can't happen because both the banks and the government DMV offices are closed. Apparently they're all attending government-mandated church services or something.

Ayn Rand had nothing to do with government offices being closed on Sunday.

In that case

Why are car dealerships open in the evening, when the banks and government offices close down? Or on Saturday?

Holbrook, you beat me to it

Great retort to Mr Tester. The quick snip and swipe by a lot of conservatives is well displayed by his comments. His comments generally are a good public service though to remind independents of the amount of thought generally involved is backing up the hypocrisy of the GOP, free market forever position.