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Blue Law Repeal Has One Priest Singing the Blues

Blue Law Repeal Has One Priest Singing the Blues

With approximately 755,000 residents in the state, North Dakota has roughly the same amount of people as the city of Charlotte, North Carolina. In other words, there's lots of room for everyone in "The Peace Garden State" to spread out.

What there hasn't been room for, however, is the right of retailers large and small to be open for business on Sundays.

For most of the state's history, retail sales were prohibited from midnight Saturday to midnight Sunday. Fifty years ago, after a blizzard left some without a way to get needed medicines, some Sunday sales were permitted, but the state still had some of America's most restrictive "blue laws," limiting what its citizens and visitors could and couldn't do or buy on the first day of the week. Most stores could open on Sunday only at noon, if they were allowed to open at all, after the 1967 revisions.

The restrictions trace back to the state's earliest days as a territory. The vast majority of religious practice then observed Sunday as the day of worship, so restricting retail operations so that employees could worship with their families made sense to political leaders back then.

Today, a more secular society overall and growing religious diversity has created a demand for more retail opportunities. If someone in Bismarck, the state capital, want to go to Best Buy on Sunday to nab a big screen TV, the reasoning goes, they should have the opportunity.

Religious Freedom and Fairness

So beginning August 1, stores in North Dakota can finally open on Sunday mornings, after the state legislature passed and Gov. Doug Bergum signed a bill repealing the restrictions.

“This legislation supports freedom, fairness, and local control,” Bergum said in a statement. “We trust retailers to decide when it’s best to open or not open their businesses, and we trust families and consumers to determine how best to spend their time.”

Among the concerns that sparked the change was the availability of online shopping and the openings of stores in neighboring states. Fargo, North Dakota, is the state's largest city by population, and residents there can take a short hop into neighboring Minnesota to shop on Sundays, for example.

News reports indicate that some merchants and shopping mall owners are still weighing the notion of flinging the doors open for Sunday shoppers, while Best Buy says it will commence Sunday sales on August 4, the first Sunday after the repeal takes effect.

Not everyone is rejoicing over the news, however. Writing at the website of religious affairs magazine First Things, the Rev. Dominic Bouck, a Roman Catholic priest, decried an action he said "removed the respirator from a dying vestige of American culture," the blue laws.

Bouck also wrote, "Those who suffer most from the loss of blue laws are those conscripted into hourly wage jobs: the young, the impoverished, single mothers, and all those who struggle. … Blue laws protected the weakest among us by making sure they could attend church on Sundays."

Sunday Enforced Under Law?

More than twenty years ago, Pope John Paul II's letter "Dies Domini" ("The Lord's Day") sought to emphasize the importance of Sunday-keeping, going to great lengths to assert that the Sabbath day mandated in Exodus 20, the seventh day of the week, had been "fulfilled" in a Church-declared day of rest on Sunday, the week's first day.

Also, John Paul II asserted, governments must support Sunday-keeping: "[I]n the particular circumstances of our own time, Christians will naturally strive to ensure that civil legislation respects their duty to keep Sunday holy." The pontiff made no mention of "civil legislation" showing respect for the duty of others to keep their day of worship "holy," however.

The Bible, of course, is clear. In Exodus chapter 20, we read four verses that are precise in their meaning: "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it" (vv. 8–11).

So who's right? A cleric in North Dakota or the Creator of the universe? As appealing as our traditions might be, everything must be measured against the standard of Scripture, if we believe we are true to God's desires for His people. Of course, no one should be forced to keep the seventh-day Sabbath or the Roman Catholic day of worship. It would be just as immoral to force stores to close on Saturday as it would be to force them to close on Sunday.

You can learn a lot more about which day is the Bible Sabbath by checking out our article "Can the True Seventh Day Be Located?" And for a deep dive into the subject, watch The Seventh Day documentary series, hosted by noted actor Hal Holbrook. You'll learn the whole story—and you won't be "blue" afterward!