BISMARCK — It’s been nearly three decades since North Dakota allowed shopping on Sunday afternoons. On Sunday, Aug. 4, retailers will finally be able to open their doors in the morning.

Those involved in the debate that led to the state Legislature easing the Sunday restrictions in 1991 said this year’s fight often echoed past talking points. While opponents argued in favor of preserving traditions and time for relaxation, Sunday shopping supporters said business owners and customers should be able to make their own decisions.

But after the dust settled, life went on. Brad Schlossman, who began overseeing Fargo's West Acres Shopping Center in 1991, expected the same pattern this time around.

"It will just quietly become the norm," he said.

The Republican-controlled Legislature's narrow decision to allow Sunday morning shopping this year followed decades of arguments over what activities to allow on a Biblical day of rest in a rural and conservative state. North Dakota became the last state to permit Sunday shopping in 1991, and some argued allowing retailers to open all day will allow them to contend with the proliferation of online shopping.

Sen. Ray Holmberg, a Grand Forks Republican who has been in the Legislature since 1977, said lawmakers have "finally caught up with public opinion."

"The Legislature is slow on social issues," he said.

John Olson, a former state lawmaker who unsuccessfully pushed legislation relaxing the so-called “Sunday closing law" in 1989, later represented businesses in a legal challenge against the restrictions. The state Supreme Court ultimately ruled in 1990 that the law was constitutional.

But Olson, who’s now a lobbyist, said the law's "unfairness" was exposed during the failed lawsuit, helping prompt the 1991 legislative effort. He noted the ban contained various exemptions for what items could be sold and which establishments could open their doors.

"The law was very confusing," he said.

North Dakota lobbyist John Olson stands in his office across from the state Capitol in Bismarck Friday, Aug. 2, 2019. John Hageman / Forum News Service
North Dakota lobbyist John Olson stands in his office across from the state Capitol in Bismarck Friday, Aug. 2, 2019. John Hageman / Forum News Service

Art Wheeler, who led the North Dakota Retail Association at the time, said some larger stores would have preferred to be open Sunday but remembered the merchants he represented being "almost unanimously opposed to relaxing the Sunday opening" because they wanted to preserve free time for workers and doubted it would increase sales.

But Wheeler said North Dakota has changed socially, leading to less emphasis on setting aside Sunday for religious worship or other activities. National polling data from Gallup suggests church membership has declined from 70% in 1992 to 50% in 2018.

"Many retailers who were open Sunday afternoons accepted it as a compromise. They were, perhaps, reluctant to be open Sunday afternoon, but they did so to still accommodate their customer base," Wheeler said.

Schlossman said West Acres supported allowing Sunday retail sales to entice Canadian shoppers, who represent a major clientele for stores in the Red River Valley. North Dakota's tourism department even ran a TV ad in Canada inviting the state's northern neighbors to shop on Sundays once it was legalized.

"The Canadian shoppers would come down on the weekends and we would be closed for half of it," Schlossman said.

A referral campaign aimed to overturn the legalization of Sunday afternoon shopping, but the law had been in place for more than a year by the time the question went to voters in June 1992. Voters overwhelmingly upheld the new Sunday hours.

Under the Sunday closing law, which was officially repealed Thursday, people who operated a business before noon on Sunday faced Class B misdemeanor charges. Restaurants, hotels, movie theaters and others were exempt from what critics called a "Swiss cheese law."

The Sunday restrictions can be traced to a time before North Dakota was granted statehood, when each offense of "Sabbath breaking" was punishable by a $1 fine.

But the limits have gradually eroded over the years. In 1920, voters allowed baseball on Sunday and later permitted the operation of "motion picture theaters" after 2 p.m. In 2015, lawmakers allowed restaurants to sell alcohol at 11 a.m. instead of noon.

Fargo Republican Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, who championed legal Sunday morning shopping this year, said she didn’t remember details about the 1991 change. She would have been in middle school or high school at the time.

“Certainly it was a big difference for me at that time because otherwise we were kind of trapped at home all day on that day,” she said. “When we were that age, the mall was a big place for teenagers to meet and hang out with one another.”

North Dakota Republican Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, right, poses with her dad, Republican Sen. Jim Roers, after her bill repealing the state's Sunday morning shopping ban passed the state Senate Tuesday, March 19, 2019. John Hageman / Forum News Service
North Dakota Republican Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, right, poses with her dad, Republican Sen. Jim Roers, after her bill repealing the state's Sunday morning shopping ban passed the state Senate Tuesday, March 19, 2019. John Hageman / Forum News Service

Roers Jones said people have asked her “frequently” about when the latest repeal will take effect.

“They are just really looking forward to the fact that they’re going to have that flexibility,” she said.

Not everyone is celebrating, however.

Christopher Dodson, executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, criticized the "excessive emphasis on consumerism, profit, convenience, and extreme individualism that accompanied the push for repeal."

"What ultimately matters are families and workers," he said in an emailed statement. "The repeal of the Sunday law jeopardizes their well-being and the common good."

It remains unclear how much of an impact the new Sunday hours will have on North Dakota's economy.

News reports suggested sales were boosted by a seventh day of legal shopping in 1991, but state tax officials have said predicting the effect of this year's change is difficult because they couldn't know how many stores would choose to open earlier. Some major retailers announced new hours — Target will open at 7 a.m. in the state's three largest cities.

But some stores said they're not making any changes right away partly due to staffing challenges.

Olson said business and consumer decisions will determine how drastic of a change Sunday morning shopping will be in North Dakota. But he remembered the 1991 rollback took hold quickly.

"After the law went into effect, it was just like, boom. It was done," Olson said. "It just seemed to have reached acceptance by that point."