Originally created 11/30/03

Crumbling blue laws create legal tangle



COLUMBIA - At high noon on a recent Sunday in the largest mall in South Carolina's largest city, shoppers were a bit perplexed by what they saw. Every store was closed, except one.

The Dillard's in the Columbiana Center sits in Richland County, the rest of the mall in Lexington County. Stores in Richland can open whenever they want on Sundays; in Lexington, merchants can't open until 1:30 p.m.

"Is that the weirdest thing you ever heard of?" Columbia resident Denise Laboe asked her daughter during an outing at the mall.

It is one of the most glaring signs that parts of South Carolina are leaving the state's rural, religious roots behind while other parts are clinging to the idea of maintaining a day of rest with Sunday sales bans, called blue laws.

"I think that sometime in the future, we'll have consistent blue laws," said Columbia attorney and lobbyist Dwight Drake. "And by that, I mean they will be totally abolished."

Just 20 years ago, stores could not sell anything on Sunday except necessities such as food, gasoline and tobacco products.

In 1985, legislators legalized the sales of all goods after 1:30 p.m. on Sundays. Even that restriction is automatically eliminated if a county collects at least $900,000 in accommodations taxes - a 2 percent charge on hotel rooms and other similar rentals - in one year. County councils also have the option to eliminate the restriction.

Some counties and cities have even done away with the ban on Sunday alcohol sales, but that requires voter approval in a referendum.

The Columbiana Dillard's opens at noon Sunday in part because it can and because that's when other stores in the Arkansas-based chain open, said assistant manager Doug Beachum.

There are always a few shoppers who are unfamiliar with the blue laws at Columbiana Center on Sundays.

"It's really ridiculous," said Robert Lope, of Elizabethtown, Ky., who stopped by to get a cup of coffee on a recent Sunday morning. He likes the mocha coffee at one specialty store, but it was closed. However, some restaurants in the food court were open.

"You can walk in naked and get fed, but you can't buy clothes for yourself," he said. Mr. Lope had just a short time to shop on his one day off before he had to head back to Fort Jackson, a nearby Army post. "I'm not going to get my coffee."

Short time is one reason many people give for wanting to start shopping early on Sundays.

"I think, just for the holiday season, it would make more sense to be open," Ms. Laboe said.

Several counties do that. Oconee County, for example, has a standing ordinance letting stores open earlier during Christmas shopping season.

Such indiscriminate application of the blue laws rankles Jim Hatchell, the president of the South Carolina Merchants Association.

"If it's OK to sell before 1:30 in December," he said, "it should be OK in July."

The Columbiana Center situation, he says, "is intolerable - it's lunacy."

He said he is polling his membership to see what they want done on blue laws in the coming legislative session.

"I've been wrestling with blue laws one way or another for 35 years," he said.

He said one bill in the General Assembly would let cities eliminate blue laws inside their boundaries - something now reserved for county governments. Columbiana Center sits entirely within Columbia's city limits, Mr. Hatchell said, meaning the city could allow uniform opening times.