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Libations and legislation: the passage of the ABC omnibus bill

After passing the well-known “Brunch Bill” into law, North Carolinians now have another reason to rise early on Sundays beyond the call to worship or worshipping football.

Sundays in North Carolina are finally a little lusher. The General Assembly recently passed a bill officially titled “ABC Omnibus Legislation,” but more popularly known as the “Brunch Bill.” The bill permits retailers and restaurants to sell alcohol on Sundays as early as 10:00 a.m. rather than noon, the current start time. On the evening of January 30, Governor Roy Cooper signed the bill into law. Despite fervent protest from religious conservatives, the bill received bipartisan support from business-friendly legislators.

Like many other states, North Carolina has a long-standing tradition of distinguishing Sunday from the rest of the days of the week. Throughout its history, the state has passed various statutes, called blue laws, originally designed to enforce religious standards by restricting or prohibiting certain secular activities taking place on Sunday—a day which legislators believed was meant to keep the Sabbath holy. The laws exerted their strongest influence during the time period from the late 18th century until the mid-20th century when many businesses were forbidden to even operate on Sundays. Those businesses that were permitted to open on Sundays were often very explicitly confined by statute in the types of items that could be sold.

For example, in the late 1880s, Asheville, North Carolina enacted a blue law that said “one could not order ice cream on Sunday without first taking a lunch and that lunch could not consist of cake.” The law, which was enforced by police raids of candy shops, was soon circumvented when a restaurant proprietor began serving ham sandwiches with a scoop of ice cream on the side, requiring patrons to eat the former before enjoying the latter. After a long series of other rather absurd statutes restricting seemingly arbitrary Sunday activities and purchases, the Asheville city council finally repealed all citywide blue laws in 1970.

Since the Prohibition Era, North Carolina has exerted and maintained tight control over the distribution and sale of alcohol, with a particular focus on Sundays.

Similar laws were enacted elsewhere in other parts of the country as well. In Maryland, a department store was found to have violated a state law simply by selling floor wax and notebooks to its customers on Sunday. The statute in question enumerated specific items, such as bread, tobacco, and medicine, which were deemed permissible for sale on a Sunday; however, floor wax and notebooks did not make the cut. The employees challenged the law under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise and Religious Establishment clauses, but the Supreme Court for the United States ultimately held that there was no constitutional violation because the state had legitimate secular interests for enforcing the law—mainly that having a day of rest would help improve the overall wellbeing of society. Although the Court’s 1961 decision, known as McGowan v. Maryland, effectively upheld blue laws as having secular rather than religious justifications, many states have since decided to stop enforcing their blue laws altogether.

Yet one blue law has largely prevailed despite a tumultuous history and remains strictly enforced in 12 states, including North Carolina. Since the Prohibition Era, North Carolina has exerted and maintained tight control over the distribution and sale of alcohol with a particular focus on Sundays. In 1937, the General Assembly passed the Alcoholic Beverage Control Act to establish a state monopoly system of control for spirituous beverages through the creation of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission (ABC). Under the Control Act, a county or city in the state may only sell liquor in local-government operated ABC stores and with the approval of local voters. While ABC stores have—and most likely always will—remained closed on Sundays, thirsty North Carolinians can still wet their whistles on the day of rest in restaurants and other similar establishments…but not, of course, without regulation.

Prior to 1993, the sale of alcohol on Sundays could not begin in North Carolina before 1:00 p.m. After various legislation calling for earlier Sunday alcohol sale times was proposed, the law was finally amended to allow sales one hour earlier, at 12:00 p.m. In 2014, the General Assembly passed a bill that permitted Bank of America to sell alcohol in Panther Stadium at 11:00 a.m. on Sundays. Until now, Panther Stadium was the only establishment a person in North Carolina could purchase alcohol within before noon on a Sunday.

The legislation known as the “Brunch Bill” amends state law prohibiting the sale of alcohol before noon on Sundays.

The legislation known as the “Brunch Bill” amends state law prohibiting the sale of alcohol before noon on Sundays. With the support of the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association (NCRLA), the bill was introduced to the Senate during the 2011-2012 legislative session. After various changes, the final rendition calls for the authorization of restaurants and other on-premises consumption establishments to serve alcohol at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays. The law also takes an “opt in” approach by giving municipalities the ultimate decision of whether or not to allow the law to take effect. While some communities see the benefit of extending liquor sales on Sunday, other localities, like those in the dry-county of Graham lying on the Tennessee border, may not.

Other states have also recently introduced “brunch bills” similar to that of North Carolina’s, but only some have become law. Georgia introduced such a bill in March 2015, and sponsors estimated that by pushing the sale of alcohol on Sundays to begin at 10:30 a.m. rather than the usual 12:30 p.m., Sunday alcohol sales would average $480.77 per restaurant in those two hours, adding up to $25,000 per year in average sales for each business. Viewed on a larger scale, that would amount to approximately $100 million in additional taxable sales for Georgia, including alcohol taxes and sales taxes. Despite what opportunities these numbers present, the bill did not pass Georgia’s General Assembly and is “officially dead.”

Sunday morning restaurant patrons will now be able to order a mimosa or Bloody Mary with their meal, which will result in increased check amounts and higher profits from taxable alcohol sales.

Just last summer, West Virginia passed a “brunch bill” changing the then-current Sunday alcohol serving time from 1:00 p.m. to 10:00 a.m. According to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, many West Virginia legislators felt the change in the law was necessary in order to help improve the struggling state economy. For restaurant owners in counties near Virginia and Maryland, the 1:00 p.m. start time caused stiff competition from restaurants in other states. Disappointed customers expecting to have a drink with their meal before 1:00 p.m. on a Sunday could easily travel across the border to a restaurant legally able to serve alcohol.

For North Carolina, the law change will certainly stimulate businesses in those areas that decide to adopt it. Sunday morning restaurant patrons will now be able to order a mimosa or Bloody Mary with their meal, which will result in increased check amounts and higher profits from taxable alcohol sales. Travelers waiting in Charlotte-Douglas Airport on a Sunday morning layover will no longer surprisingly be denied when ordering Bailey’s to put in their coffee. Even Panthers fans tailgating before a noon game at the Bank of America Stadium can start pounding beers earlier than they ever could before.

This year the ABC Commission will turn 80 years old, and while the system has not changed, the state-run monopoly will soon face a little more competition in the liquor market. A provision in the recently passed bill permits distilleries to sell more bottles of their products at their own buildings, as well as allowing them to provide samples and tastings at stores and festivals for the first time ever. The passage of North Carolina’s “Brunch Bill” truly marks a slight, yet significant, relinquishment of the state’s control over the distribution and sale of spirituous beverages throughout the state.

Katie King
About Katie King (12 Articles)
Katie King is a third year law student and serves as Managing Editor for the Campbell Law Observer. Originally from Calabash, NC, Katie went to NC State University where she received a Bachelor of Arts in History. During her second year, Katie worked in real estate at Brady Law Firm located in Raleigh, as well as in the Chambers of The Honorable Judge John M. Tyson at the NC Court of Appeals. Her legal interests include corporate law, real property, and estate planning.