The North Dakota Blues

Created by Raheem Williams |

North Dakota has some of the strictest blue laws in the nation.

Blue laws are statutes that prevent or restrict commercial activity on Sundays. Despite the many economic arguments against blue laws, attempts to repeal these Sunday restrictions have been mostly unsuccessful. A recent vote by the state legislature marked just another in a long line of victories for North Dakota’s blue laws.

History of North Dakota Blue Laws

The first blue laws appeared in the United States to discourage immoral acts on the Lord’s Day, such as gambling or drinking alcohol. During the 19th century, many states – including North Dakota – adopted blue laws to restrict all marketplace activity on Sundays. While these laws were guided by Christian religious views, proponents now argue that they serve a universal purpose to give workers a day of “rest and relaxation.”

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of blue laws in the landmark case, McGowan v. Maryland (1961). Despite the confirmed legality of these restrictions, many states began to repeal their blue laws in the 1960s. North Dakota, however, held on. Citing McGowan extensively, the North Dakota Supreme Court has upheld the state’s blue laws at least four times.

When judicial means failed, citizens turned to the legislature to ease Sunday restrictions. It wasn’t until after the great blizzard of March 1966, nicknamed the “Blizzard of the Century,” that lawmakers began to make changes. After businesses were unable to open after the blizzard, the legislature passed a list of blue law exceptions in 1967. These included restaurants, hospitals, and transportation services. Today, over 39 types of businesses are exempt from Sunday closing.

Since then, there have been two other legislative changes to North Dakota’s blue laws. In 1991, the legislature allowed most businesses to open after Noon. In 2015, the “brunch bill” was passed to allow restaurants to start serving alcohol at 11 a.m.

Recent Legislative Attempts

In the latest legislative session, a bill was introduced to untangle the complicated list of exemptions and repeal North Dakota’s blue laws. The bill received a “do pass” recommendation from both House and Senate committees. In a strange series of events, the bill first failed in the House 44-50, then was reconsidered and passed 48-46. The bill ultimately failed 22-25 in the Senate, creating another frustrating setback for businesses, employees, and consumers.

The Case Against Blue Laws

Blue laws are bad economic policy and bad governance. They restrict the freedom of businesses and citizens to decide how best to spend their time and resources.

Most of North Dakota’s metro areas are located on one of the state’s borders. When North Dakota’s blue law restrictions surpass its neighbors, they drive businesses and consumers to other states. The businesses that remain in North Dakota face a competitive disadvantage and lose profits. Business owners should have the freedom to create their own policies. By repealing the state’s blue laws, businesses would be able to choose for themselves whether or not to open on Sundays.

Blue laws are also bad for employees. Proponents argue that these restrictions favor workers, but that view is flawed. Pro-worker laws should increase worker freedom; blue laws erode it. They restrict economic activity, resulting in fewer hours worked and less income for workers. They also ignore the will of individuals. Some workers may need more work and less rest to maintain their living standards; in which case, the workers themselves are in a better position to decide when and how much they should work—not the state government.

Lastly, the state’s blue laws have been bad for consumers. In the modern era, church attendance is no longer restricted to Sundays; likewise, families’ needs for both shopping and rest are diverse and dynamic. North Dakota’s inconsistent exemptions create a complicated system that can get even the most devoted gift-giver in trouble.

It’s time for the state to get out of the way of its citizens and the business owners who serve them. It’s time for North Dakota’s blue laws to go. 

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