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Sunday liquor sales bill clears Senate committee

ATLANTA - Legislation allowing local governments to ask their voters whether to allow Sunday sales of alcoholic beverages squeaked past a Senate committee Tuesday.

The Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee voted 4-3 to send the bill to the Rules Committee, which then will decide whether it reaches the Senate floor.

The legislation has been pushed primarily by lobbyists for supermarkets and convenience stores, who want the same opportunity to sell beer and wine on Sundays that now applies to restaurants and some bars.

Supporters also have argued that 47 states already allow Sunday sales of alcohol. Georgia, Connecticut and Indiana are the only exceptions.

But the bill is opposed by Christian conservatives who don't believe alcohol should be sold on a day set aside for worship.

The original version of the bill also drew fire from the liquor lobby because it would have limited Sunday sales to beer and wine.

To address that issue, the measure's chief sponsor, Sen. Seth Harp, R-Midland, expanded it to include distilled spirits.

The bill's amended version allows communities wishing to put Sunday sales before their voters to schedule a referendum either allowing Sunday sales of beer and wine only or putting beer, wine and hard liquor on the ballot.

Harp also extended an olive branch to religious groups by amending the original bill to prohibit Sunday sales before noon.

"We were not trying to be offensive to anybody,'' he said. "We were trying to make it available for sale after church.''

But Jim Beck, president of the state chapter of the Christian Coalition, said no compromise will make the bill acceptable to those who oppose Sunday sales of alcohol for religious reasons.

"This matters to values voters,'' he said.

Earlier in this year's legislative session, the committee's chairman, Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, introduced a resolution calling for a study committee to conduct an overall examination of Georgia's liquor laws instead of considering various piecemeal changes.

But Shafer didn't stand in the way of Tuesday's committee vote on Harp's bill, although he abstained from voting on the measure.

"This proposed change should be considered in a larger context,'' he said after the vote. "We may still move forward with a study committee.''

Although time is growing short in this year's session for the full Senate to pass the Sunday sales bill, Harp said he is optimistic that it will make it through the upper chamber and move on to the House.

If the measure gets through the General Assembly, however, its prospects still would be uncertain. Gov. Sonny Perdue, who does not drink, has said it would take some convincing for him not to veto it.