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Archive for Monday, February 16, 2004

Analysis: Lawmakers avoid moral arguments on Sunday sales

February 16, 2004

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— Opposition to Sunday alcohol sales in Kansas is a moral issue to some legislators, yet few have been willing to invoke religion or morality as they argue against the idea.

Instead, senators who oppose Sunday sales argue that such sales will lead to more drunks on the highways, increase access to alcohol for underage drinkers and take away the only day off for mom-and-pop liquor store owners.

Those all are legitimate arguments. But some legislators who are making them oppose Sunday sales because the policy would deviate from a longstanding Kansas tradition that goes back to well before Carry Nation, whose temperance crusade against illegal saloons in the early 1900s earned her national renown.

During the session, religious values have dominated a debate over banning gay marriage in the Kansas Constitution, but similarly indignant voices of morality are mostly muted when it comes to Sunday sales.

Sen. Stan Clark, an Oakley Republican who opposes Sunday sales on moral grounds, acknowledged that legislators were leery of waving the banner of religion in fighting against looser liquor laws.

"The feeling for some was that it would do more harm than good," he said recently, after the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee voted 5-4 to send a bill permitting Sunday sales to the full Senate. The bill, stripped of its Sunday sales provisions, failed last week.

But proponents also aren't using the argument that forbidding sales of a legal product on Sunday violates the separation of church and state. Only the Kansas Beer Wholesalers Assn., in testimony before the committee, made that case.

"The primary reason for prohibiting package sales on Sundays is an ancient adherence to a belief that activity -- including purchasing, working and consuming -- should be curtailed on the Christian Sabbath," association spokesman Neil Whitaker told senators.

However, the fate of Sunday alcohol sales this session appears to hinge on taxes, not religion. A majority of senators -- albeit a small one -- indicated they didn't have a problem with changing the law to allow package liquor sales on the Christian Sabbath.

Some senators won't support a bill permitting Sunday sales if it also includes an increase in alcohol taxes, while others won't support a bill that doesn't include higher taxes.

But both House and Senate leaders predict Sunday sales will be approved during this session as part of an alcohol package that makes the state's Liquor Control Act uniform. The House approved such a bill last year and probably would support it again this time if it makes it past the Senate without a large tax increase.

The uniformity issue is a no-brainer to lawmakers who fear that without it, cities theoretically could lower the drinking age.

There's a reluctance among senators to tell the 14 cities and one county that now allow Sunday sales they must stop. A uniformity bill that expressly forbids cities from opting out of the state's liquor law -- but does not include a provision for Sunday sales -- would force them to cut off those sales.

The prospect of taking away Sunday sales from some communities raises economics as an issue.

Thus, the debate has become about economics and taxes, rather than about morality and religious values.

And opponents of Sunday sales are content to leave it at that.

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