A trend sweeping the nation, and perhaps, North Carolina?

By statute, North Carolina allows on-premises alcohol sales statewide from 7:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. every day, except Sundays, when alcohol service cannot begin until noon.[1] Municipalities and counties may also entirely prohibit Sunday sales of beer and wine for on-premises consumption in their jurisdictions, unless the establishment has a brown-bagging or mixed beverages permit.[2] The North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association has supported proposed legislation to relax Sunday alcohol restrictions, with the most recent legislation proposed during the 2011-2012 legislative session. North Carolina is not alone in addressing Sunday blue laws – which were historically far more restrictive than some might realize.

A historical perspective

Over the years, North Carolina and its counties, cities, and town have passed and repealed a variety of statutes, regulations, and ordinances restricting Sunday activities. These “blue laws” were intended to “provide a day of rest and to prevent physical and moral debasement from uninterrupted labor,” as explained by a federal appeals court as recently as 2000.[3]  While almost all remaining blue laws govern alcohol sales, blue laws have historically restricted other menu options. For example, in Asheville in the late 1880s, a blue law provided that “one could not order ice cream on Sunday without first taking a lunch and that lunch could not consist of cake,” and the police enforced the law against the Sunday ice-cream eaters through raids of candy shops.[4] However, an enterprising restauranteur began to serve ham sandwiches with his scoops, which allowed his Sunday lunch crowd to enjoy law-abiding ice cream. City-wide blue laws were repealed in Asheville by the city council in 1970.

“Brunch Bills” in other states

Several states have recently introduced “brunch bills” to allow Sunday morning alcohol sales, and some have become law. In Georgia, where a “brunch bill” was introduced in March 2015, its sponsors estimated that passing the bill, which proposed allowing cities and municipalities to “opt in” and allow alcohol sales to begin at 10:30 a.m., would create an extra $100 million in taxable sales of food and beverages.[5] Although the bill passed Georgia’s House, it stalled out in the Senate and was declared “dead” a year later by the Georgia Restaurant Association.[6]

Last summer, New York passed changes to New York’s alcoholic beverage control laws, including New York’s prohibition of Sunday sales before noon, allowing restaurants, taverns and bars to serve alcohol beginning at 10:00 a.m. The “booze bill,” which also cut red tape for wineries and breweries, was signed into law by Governor Cuomo on September 7, 2016, the day before the official start of the NFL season.[7]

“Brunch bills” were also considered in West Virginia in 2016, proposing to roll back the 1:00 pm start time for Sunday alcohol sales, which the West Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association named as their “number one priority” for the year.[8] The West Virginia legislation passed with an amendment that allowed each county to vote to allow the earlier alcohol sales, and some counties passed the measure on ballots in November’s election.[9]

Sunday alcohol sales in other states

Some states, such as Alaska and Wyoming, do not restrict Sunday alcohol sales at all. In other states, such as Alabama and Pennsylvania, Sunday alcohol sales are governed at the local level only. Restrictions and exceptions abound.  For example, in Greene County, Alabama, alcohol may be sold on Sundays only at the dog track. Other Alabama counties limit Sunday sales to on-premises consumption, or restaurants and motels only. In Arkansas, Sunday sales are only allowed in cities with large-attendance gambling facilities, but even those facilities cannot serve on Christmas Day and Easter Sunday, while all permittees may serve on New Year’s Eve, whatever day it falls on. Every state west of the Mississippi allows Sunday morning on-premises sales by statute or allows local governments to enact Sunday on-premises alcohol sales ordinances. Nevada allows each local government to decide – which is why, in Las Vegas, you can buy a drink at any hour of the day, any day of the week.

Challenging blue laws in North Carolina

Blue laws have also seen unsuccessful judicial challenges. North Carolina courts have held that regulation by the State of the public peace, safety, welfare, and morals through Sunday ordinances is constitutional and legitimate, so long as the law does not arbitrarily and unreasonably discriminate against a particular class of businesses or establishments.[10] When a particular class of individuals or entities is regulated, the United States and North Carolina Constitutions require that the classification have a reasonable basis and that the law or regulation apply uniformly across all members of the class.[11] The right to sell alcohol is based upon a validly-issued permit, and does not exist as a constitutional right or a property right.[12] The delegation of the power to enact blue laws to counties and municipalities has also been upheld.[13] Over decades of challenges, North Carolina courts have supported Sunday blue laws as generally valid, which is very unlikely to change in the near future.

North Carolina legislative approaches

If you are a restauranteur or hotelier, relaxation of Sunday blue laws to allow your establishment to serve guests mimosas or Bloody Marys with brunch seems to be all benefits and no downsides. Similarly, retailers would likely welcome the opportunity to let fans shop for wine or beer before the first round of afternoon football, basketball, or hockey games.

In one version of the 2011 bill, the start time would have been changed to 11:00 a.m., but the proposed change to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 18B-1004(a) in House Bill 796 died in committee.[14] The Sunday alcohol sales hours have been changed before: until 1993, Sunday alcohol sales could not begin until 1:00 p.m., but Section 18B-1004(c) was rewritten to a noon start time.[15] Earlier, unsuccessful versions of the 1993 bill proposed 11:30 a.m. and 11:45 a.m. start times.[16] Additionally, in 2014, the General Assembly passed a bill that allowed Bank of America to sell alcohol beginning at 11:00 a.m. in Panther Stadium, which remains the only establishment in North Carolina that is allowed to sell alcohol before noon.

One potential amendment to the statute could repeal the section specifically restricting Sunday sales, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 18B-1004(c), which would leave the hours of sale for Sundays the same as any other day: 7:00 a.m.-2:00 a.m. In addition to being clean and easily understood, the amendment would increase business for both service and retail establishments. All prior proposed legislation to broaden Sunday morning sales has sought to expand into the morning hours, but retained a distinction between Sundays and the rest of the days of the week. Certainly, moving Sunday start times just an hour or two earlier, the “brunch bill” approach, has seen success in other states.

In North Carolina, a strong, bipartisan coalition of business-friendly lawmakers in both chambers could support a relaxation of Sunday alcohol sales restrictions, especially one which allowed local governments to opt out, and lawmakers may take a run at passing a “brunch bill” during the 2017-2018 session. According to Lynn Minges, NCRLA has had positive conversations with influential legislators about this issue. The issue remains one of NCRLA’s legislative priorities.

Perhaps, in legislative sessions in the near future, North Carolina can follow New York and West Virginia in allowing Sunday morning alcohol sales, or at least allowing local governments to decide the issue. Just as a lunch of cake with ice cream for dessert is no longer outlawed as dangerous to health and safety, the national trend favors letting patrons enjoy mimosas – or Bloody Marys — with a morning brunch.

[1] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 18B-1004(a), (c) (2016).

[2] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 18B-1004(d).

[3] Providence Square Assocs., LLC v. G.D.F., Inc., 211 F.3d 846, 852 (4th Cir. 2000).

[4] Zoe Rhine, “Asheville City’s Sunday Blue Laws,” HeardTell: The North Carolina Room, Pack Memorial Library (Oct. 1, 2015) , available at: https://packlibraryncroom.wordpress.com/2015/10/01/asheville-citys-sunday-blue-laws/ (last accessed 15 Nov. 2016).

[5] Osayi Endolyn, “Brunch Bill aims to start Sunday alcohol sales at 10:30 am,” Atlanta Magazine (Mar. 10, 2015), available at: http://www.atlantamagazine.com/drinks/brunch-bill-aims-start-sunday-alcohol-sales-1030/ (last accessed 15 Nov. 2016).

[6] Amy Wenk, “Brunch bill ‘officially dead,’” Atlanta Business Chronicle (Mar. 16, 2016), available at: http://www.bizjournals.com/atlanta/news/2016/03/16/brunch-bill-officially-dead.html (last accessed 15 Nov. 2016).

[7] Press Office of New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, “Gov. Cuomo Signs Legislation to Modernize New York’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Law,” (Sept. 7, 2016),  available at: https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/governor-cuomo-signs-legislation-modernize-new-yorks-alcoholic-beverage-control-law (last accessed 15 Nov. 2016).

[8] Dawn Nolan, “‘Brunch Bills’ supporters hope to change Sunday alcohol sales time,” Charleston Gazette-Mail, (Feb. 7, 2016), available at: https://www.wvgazettemail.com/life/brunch-bills-supporters-hope-to-change-sunday-alcohol-sales-time/article_1581439f-7caa-55a1-b41c-2ad18dd3b6ee.html (last accessed 15 Nov. 2016).

[9] Alec Berry, “Ohio, Marshall Counties Take ‘Brunch Bill,’” The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register (Nov. 9, 2016), available at: http://www.theintelligencer.net/news/election-2016-results/2016/11/ohio-marshall-counties-take-brunch-bill/ (last accessed 15 Nov. 2016).

[10] Hursey v. Town of Gibsonville, 284 N.C. 522, 528-29, 202 S.E.2d 161, 165-66 (1974).

[11] Id.

[12] AGL, Inc. v. N.C.

[13] Whitney Stores, Inc. v. Clark, 277 N.C. 322, 327, 177 S.E.2d 418, 421 (1970).

[14] N.C. Gen. Assembly Conference Report, H.B. 796-CRRU-15 [v. 1], available at: http://www.ncleg.net/Applications/BillLookUp/LoadBillDocument.aspx?SessionCode=2011&DocNum=1500&SeqNum=0 (last accessed 15 Nov. 2016).

[15] N.C. Sess. L. 1993-243.

[16] S.B. 754 (1991).