Some South Carolina counties are being asked to suspend their "blue laws" that restrict shopping hours on Sundays. Merchants want to open early on the day before Christmas. Christmas Eve falls on Sunday this year, and that can be bad news if you happen to be a merchant in South Carolina.
More than 30 counties in the Bible Belt state have so-called "blue laws" restricting the hours stores can open on Sundays.
For all the attention the day after Thanksgiving gets as the beginning of the holiday shopping season, merchants say the day that ends the season is equally important. That's the day before Christmas, Dec. 24. And at his sporting goods store in Aiken County, S.C., Bobby Sheridan says that day normally brings in a flood of shoppers looking for last-minute gifts.
"Christmas Eve typically is our second-best day of sales, and we do 50 percent of our sales in the last seven days before Christmas," Sheridan says.
This year, though, Sheridan worries his Christmas Eve sales will fall short, because Aiken has a blue law that bans most stores from opening their doors before 1:30 on Sunday afternoons. Sheridan says the law has always been an annoyance to retailers, but will be especially costly now, if South Carolinians drive across the state line to Georgia to do their Christmas Eve shopping.
Because of concerns like that, merchants in several South Carolina counties are asking local leaders to temporarily repeal Sunday sales bans for Christmas Eve Day.
It's a request that's receiving a mixed response. In Aiken, the county board voted this week to keep the ban in place, saying Sunday morning should be reserved for church. But elsewhere, politicians have agreed to let stores open early.
Even before this round of holiday repeals, South Carolina's blue laws have been getting weaker in recent years. The Sunday morning sales ban used to apply statewide, but now it's a county-by-county issue. And even places that maintain the ban now exempt stores like supermarkets, gas stations, and pharmacies.
Still, the traditional blue laws, which date back to 1885, have plenty of supporters.
Oran Smith heads the Palmetto Family Council, a Christian advocacy group.
"If you have Christmas shopping left to do and are faced with the question of whether to go to church or whether to get there for the Early Bird Special," Smith says, "you might be tempted to do the shopping and worry about church later, and that would be unfortunate.
"I'm sorry to see our state change that much so quickly."
A recent study by economists at Notre Dame and MIT concluded that church attendance does indeed drop slightly when blue laws are repealed. But South Carolina business groups say the laws cost the state's retailers some $50 million each year.