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Sunday sales vote heads quietly to local ballots

ATLANTA — When voters in nearly 100 cities and a dozen counties cast their ballots on whether they want Sunday alcohol sales in their communities next month, it will be a far less dramatic decision than the Legislature’s vote to make the issue one of local control.

In the six months since the bill became law, there has been little mention of the issue as local governments voted to put the question on the Nov. 8 ballot. According to the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office, 98 cities and 12 counties will have Sunday sales on the ballot.

Some groups say lobbying for or against the issue is futile. Others say the issue was a foregone conclusion when the governor signed the bill into law.

It is quite a different tone from years past, when the issue was hotly contested at the Capitol.

The question of whether to allow Georgians to buy alcohol on the Sabbath has been long debated, with lobbyists on both sides spending thousands of dollars to persuade lawmakers. For years, former Gov. Sonny Perdue threatened to veto any bill supporting Sunday sales. But this session, those in favor of Sunday sales were encouraged by the arrival of Gov. Nathan Deal, who signaled he would support allowing citizens to settle the matter, touting the legislation as autonomy instead of morality.

Jerry Luquire, president of the Georgia Christian Coalition and one of the fiercest opponents of Sunday sales, said the issue died when it headed to the ballot. While he has kept up his efforts, sending emails to church groups and seeking grassroots support, he said he has gotten no response.

“I can’t get one single church to even insert a memo in their bulletin to bring attention to the vote.” Luquire said. “I don’t know why. I’m perplexed.”

Luquire sold his position at the Capitol as an issue of public safety, not religion. He suspects he may have sold it too well.

“The churches may have taken it seriously when we said it wasn’t a religious issue,” he said.

Ray Newman, a lobbyist for the Georgia Baptist Convention, expressed similar frustration and confusion. He said that while he has gotten calls in recent weeks from pastors inquiring about the Sunday sales referendum, things have been mostly quiet since the bill was passed.

“I think that the pastors have just decided to deal with the issue on their own instead of organizing,” Newman said. “There’s not something like an organized thing going on. It’s a here-and-there kind of thing.”

Newman, a pastor at the Macedonia Community Baptist Church in Braselton, said that he has been vocal in his church community and in Winder, where he lives. He said that he is available to work with or speak to individual churches, but added that the Georgia Baptist Convention does not get involved in local elections.

For his part, Luquire has already sent one mailing to more than 12,000 constituents, and plans to send another this weekend. The brief letter asks: “Do you want Sunday to become another Saturday?”

The Georgia Christian Coalition does not have the financial resources to wage a larger statewide campaign. But he pointed out that even more moneyed groups aren’t doing much for or against the vote.

“Neither we nor the drinkers are taking a stand,” Luquire said. “Nobody’s spending any time or money on it. We’re just waiting to see what happens.”

Georgia Food Industry Association President Kathy Kuzava, who lobbied in favor of Sunday sales at the Capitol, said she is pleased citizens will be able to set their own policies for their neighborhoods.

“We’re not surprised at all as to the amount of cities and counties that are jumping on the opportunity,” Kuzava said. “Our efforts at the state capitol were always about letting the local communities decide. We’ve paved the way ... to have their voices heard. They didn’t have that opportunity before.”

Jim Tudor, president of the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores, said that despite supporting the legislation for the past five years, his organization didn’t do any lobbying after the law passed the Legislature, either. He explained that because the issue is local and not statewide, his organization could not get involved on a community level because that could give some members a competitive advantage over others.

“If this was a statewide vote, no question we’d be very engaged,” Tudor said. “What we have done is we have kept our members up to date in the different areas about which jurisdictions are planning an election. They can ... be as active as they choose to be on this particular issue.”

Newman agreed.

“If it was a statewide election, there would have been a better chance of seeing some sort of organization in opposition to it, “he said.

Should voters approve Sunday sales, the effective dates will vary by municipality — meaning that voters would not necessarily be able to buy alcohol at a grocery or liquor store on the first Sunday after the measure passes in their community.