Next Tuesday night, as ballots are being tallied in local elections around the state, one of the longstanding political walls in Georgia should finally come tumbling down.
An end to the last vestige of the old blue laws prohibiting the transaction of business on Sundays will be on the ballot in more than 100 cities and counties as voters consider eliminating the ban on the Sunday package sales of alcoholic beverages.
Citizens will have the chance to say yes or no to the question of whether Sunday package sales should be legal. Regardless of what they decide, voters will make that choice for themselves rather than have it dictated by some outside group or religious organization.
It will be quite a milestone for a state where the churches held tremendous political clout for years and kept laws in place that banned gambling or the legal purchase of beverages that include fermented spirits.
The power of the religious groups has been declining, however, as more and more communities voted to indulge in what were once regarded as sinful activities. One of the last major campaigns from the churches was the effort in the early 1990s to defeat the passage of the Georgia Lottery that funds HOPE scholarships.
That move failed as a majority of the voters approved the lottery, which left the ban on Sunday package sales as the last stand of religious conservatives.
That prohibition would doubtless have been swept aside several years ago if not for the opposition of Sonny Perdue, a governor who didn’t drink and vowed to veto any Sunday package sales legislation.
With Perdue gone and a more accommodating person in the governor’s office, it was only a matter of time before the Sunday sales ban became a quaint part of the state’s history. Although there was a bit of a struggle in this year’s legislative session, a bill to allow local referendums on Sunday sales made it through the House and Senate and obtained Nathan Deal’s signature.
There were many people, including me, who expected to see a spirited campaign this fall involving the pro-sales faction and the church groups as we got closer to the date of the Nov. 8 referendums. That has not happened, however.
The grocery and convenience store lobbyists who worked diligently to secure legislative passage of the Sunday sales bill have kept quiet. So have the churches and religious organizations. The media has spent more time reporting on referendums that won’t happen until next year – the T-SPLOST, or transportation sales tax – than on the Sunday sales votes that will take place next week.
“I cannot find one church that will do anything, even do a bulletin insert, about the upcoming vote, let alone tell the congregation about it,” said Jerry Luquire, president of the Christian Coalition of Georgia and a diehard opponent of Sunday alcohol sales. “We sent out a mass email – we did not hear back from one church.”
It is, he said, “perplexing to me.”
The pro-sales factions, now that they have succeeded in getting the legislation passed to authorize Sunday sales referendums, sat back and said voters in each of the affected communities should make their own decisions.
“We’re letting the local grocers in the area decide whether they want to get involved,” said Kathy Kuzava of the Georgia Food Industry Association, which represents the state’s grocery stores.
“We’ve always said it’s a matter of local control,” she said. “Let the local communities decide for themselves.”
At last count, there were 109 local elections scheduled on the Sunday sales issue. Because this is a municipal election year, most of the votes are being held in cities such as Grovetown, and including Atlanta, Dalton, Lookout Mountain, Gainesville, Flowery Branch, Oakwood, Jefferson, Auburn, Dawsonville and Statesboro.
Most of the county votes on the Sunday sales question will be held next year, but a few counties went ahead and scheduled votes for next week. They include Barrow, Bulloch, Whitfield, Elbert and Jasper.
There could well be a few locales where the issue is defeated, but I would guess that a majority of the communities will choose to allow Sunday package sales of alcohol.
“Obviously, there’s a desire to drink or it wouldn’t be on the ballot,” Luquire acknowledged. “I see it passing. This is just the natural progression of things.”
(Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an internet news service at gareport.com.)