As Georgia moves closer to allowing alcohol sales on Sunday, leaders in some rural communities say it will never happen where they live.
“Sunday is church day and God’s day in my book,” Trenton Mayor Barton Harris said. “If you can’t get it the other six days of the week, I think you’ve messed yourself up.”
The state Senate last week approved legislation that would allow counties and municipalities to vote on whether packaged alcohol, including beer, wine and hard liquor, can be sold in grocery and liquor stores on Sundays. It’s not the first time such a proposal has been heard in the General Assembly, but it’s the first time it has gotten this far.
The legislation, Senate Bill 10, now goes before the House, where lawmakers say it stands a good chance of being approved.
Georgia is one of only three states — along with Connecticut and Indiana — that still ban packaged alcohol sales on Sunday. But in the face of staunchly conservative religious values in Georgia, state officials have been reluctant to make any quick changes, experts say.
“Even 40 years ago, there were mostly dry counties,” said George Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. “It’s a gradual process that any type of alcohol is available.”
Yet for many people, morality isn’t the only consideration.
If lawmakers pass the Sunday sales bill, Dalton Mayor David Pennington said he will have it on the ballot in November. The current law makes no sense, he said.
“You can drink 20 margaritas in a restaurant but can’t sell a package of beer” on Sunday, Pennington said.
Plus, if Dalton residents were to approve Sunday alcohol sales and neighboring municipalities didn’t, the city of about 33,000 people would be more attractive to businesses and new residents, he said. And that could help boost its economy.
“Right now, we need all the help we can get,” he said.
MORALS VS. MODERN
Across Georgia, counties have polar differences in how alcohol can be sold, Bullock said. Some allow the sale of alcohol at a restaurant only with the purchase of a meal. Others don’t allow the sale of mixed drinks, just beer and wine. And still others remain dry.
Even if the Sunday-sales bill wins final legislative approval, many communities won’t even consider such a change, he said.
In Trenton — population about 2,000 — officials passed an ordinance last year to allow beer and wine to be sold in restaurants. Harris, the mayor, said he cast the deciding vote because people were frustrated with losing business.
“A lot of people just got tired of people driving to Hamilton County [for dinner],” Harris said.
Still, a number of local churches and community members criticized officials over the issue.
While Harris said he would oppose allowing alcohol to be sold on Sunday in Trenton, he didn’t see anything wrong with other counties and cities deciding for themselves.
John Smith, pastor of Piney Grove Baptist in Trenton, warned that allowing Sunday alcohol sales would be a “step into a steep spiral.”
He said church members aren’t trying to impose their beliefs on the community. “We’re just trying to protect Christian values,” he said.
“Making [alcohol] more accessible would make it more difficult for [those struggling],” said Smith, whose church hosts weekly AA meetings. “I’ve never seen alcohol added to any county that resulted in anything but harm.”
Georgia traditionally has valued morality, and this step in the General Assembly moves the state away from those principles, Smith said.
Some officials contend that only a small minority of the state’s residents oppose the change. And some residents aren’t buying the morality argument.
When Lance Edgar and his college buddies forget to plan ahead for the weekend, they must drive 40 miles from Dalton to Chattanooga to stock up on beer.
“I don’t understand it,” said Edgar, a senior at Dalton State College, shaking his head. “If selling alcohol on Sunday affects your ability to go to church, that’s pretty sad.”
Before the Senate bill passed by a vote of 32-22, the legislation was thought to have died. But on Wednesday, the annual Crossover Day — the last day for a bill to clear at least one chamber in order to be considered — the bill was revived.
Seventeen of 36 Republicans and five of 20 Democrats in the Senate voted against the bill.
Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, said he wrestled with the decision before finally voting yes. In the end, he said, he decided local government should have the option to decide on alcohol ordinances. Sunday sales is the only alcohol regulation that isn’t controlled on the local level, he said.
“There’s no disputing the fact it puts people at odds,” Bethel said.
Sen. Ed Harbison, D-Columbus, didn’t vote on Senate Bill 10. Rep. Tom Weldon, R-Ringgold, said he would like local government to have the control, but his initial reaction is to vote against the bill.
“Generally speaking, I’d be opposed to it,” he said. “I think my district would be against.”
While Bethel said he understands the concerns about alcohol becoming more accessible if the bill passes, he doesn’t think that would affect the morality of the state’s residents.
“Hopefully, our faith is displayed more in our lives than our laws,” he said.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...