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Legislature considers law to permit Sunday sales

With Super Bowl Sunday in sight, the head of the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores put out the following reminder last Friday aimed at shoppers:

"Many hard working Georgians will want to relax this weekend while watching the Super Bowl in the comfort and safety of their own homes,'' said association President Jim Tudor.

"We want to remind them that whether they are Bears fans, Colts fans or just watching for the commercials, they all have to make their alcohol purchases on Saturday.''

If a Republican state senator gets his way, such planning-ahead advice might not be necessary for next year's Super Bowl.

Sen. Seth Harp, R-Midway, has been going out of his way in recent days to court opponents of his bill allowing local voters across Georgia to decide whether to allow Sunday sales of beer and wine in their communities.

Facing an unlikely coalition of the Christian right and the hard liquor industry, Harp is showing a willingness to bend his proposal to cater to their concerns and, he hopes, get it passed.

Last week, he said he's working on an amendment to the bill that would expand Sunday sales to distilled spirits. That way, liquor stores could open on Sundays and compete with supermarkets and convenience stores on what has become a busy shopping day.

Harp said another change would prohibit Sunday sales of beer, wine or hard liquor before noon, traditionally the time when church services end.

"That's being respectful to people who are churched and removes the discrimination against the liquor industry,'' he said.

Harp's attempts to find middle ground aren't likely to pay off with Christian conservatives, who oppose the sale of alcoholic beverages at any time on the Lord's Day, based on biblical teachings.

"The Fourth Commandment says, 'Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy,' '' said Sadie Fields, chairman of the Georgia Christian Alliance. "Sunday has become just another day, the seventh day of the week.''

But Harp's decision to add distilled spirits to the bill could help get the measure a foot in the door of the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee, the first hurdle it must clear if it is to have any chance of passage.

Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, the committee's chairman, cited the original bill's failure to include hard liquor as a major factor in his decision two weeks ago to introduce a resolution calling for the formation of a study committee to conduct a broad examination of Georgia's liquor laws after this year's session.

He said allowing Sunday sales of beer and wine but not distilled spirits raises fairness questions.

"It would eliminate one argument against the bill,'' Shafer said last week of Harp's plan to expand the legislation to liquor.

Shafer said his committee plans to hold hearings on both Harp's bill and the study committee resolution.

The Sunday sales measure will carry some advantages into that hearing.

It has bipartisan backing in the Senate, with six Republicans and six Democrats signing on as cosponsors.

Recent polls have shown strong public support for the measure, not only in cosmopolitan metro Atlanta but also in rural Georgia.

Only two states other than Georgia still prohibit Sunday sales of alcoholic beverages, and neither lies in the Southern Bible Belt.

"We're evolving as a state,'' Harp said. "We are truly becoming a 21st century state. The blue laws are a creature of the 19th century.''

The bill also has been endorsed by major newspapers across the state as well as the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.

But all of that ignores what the ultimate decider, Gov. Sonny Perdue, has had to say publicly about the bill.

The governor, a teetotaler from a small town in Middle Georgia, stopped just short of threatening to veto the legislation if it reaches his desk.

When Perdue's comments in a radio interview last month gained widespread news coverage, he moved to clarify his remarks on two subsequent occasions.

"A lot of people were reading into what he said on the radio,'' Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley said. "It wasn't a veto threat. He doesn't do that. ... He simply said it would take some persuasion to get his vote.''

Where does that leave the Jim Tudors of the world?

Probably downplaying what the bill actually does - allow Sunday sales of alcohol - and stressing its advantages for retail commerce and its appeal to Georgia politicians' sense of democracy, of letting the people decide whether they want Sunday liquor sales in their towns.

"This is not about Sunday sales,'' Tudor said. "It's about being able to vote on Sunday sales.''

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.

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