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Our Views: A toast to freedom
Credit tea partyers push for liberty for letting voters decide on Sunday sales
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.

Warm up your voting fingers, Northeast Georgians: It's almost time to go to the polls again.

In a little more than two weeks, local residents will be filling out ballots for city council and school board races, and for a few of us, special elections to fill state legislative seats. There are enough contested races to stir up interest, even if this year's election is merely an appetizer for a bigger one next year.

There is another item before voters in many towns this year, one many thought would never make it onto a Georgia ballot: Sunday sales of alcoholic beverages. Gainesville, Flowery Branch and Oakwood are among dozens of cities statewide putting it before voters. If it passes, many Georgians may be able to purchase their New Year's champagne on the first day of 2012, which is a Sunday, as it so happens.

For decades, Georgians have been unable to buy beer, wine or spirits at liquor or grocery stores on Sundays, the result of long-standing "blue laws" designed to keep such sales from spoiling the Sabbath of the Christian majority. For decades, attempts to overturn the ban as archaic and contrary to liberty were swept aside by powerful lobbies from church and moral watchdog groups.

But something changed in the last few years, a grudging acknowledgment perhaps that recognizes freedom as more important than such control.

In recent years, the Sunday sales ban became increasingly irrelevant as cities and counties allowed restaurants, bars and sporting venues to sell alcohol by the drink. But for some reason, the beer aisle in the local supermarket has remained dark. It makes no sense, especially to transplanted residents unaccustomed to such restrictions in their home states.

In fact, only two other U.S. states, Connecticut and Indiana, still ban Sunday sales. Even our neighboring Bible Belt states conceded this point some time back and let residents make their own choices.

The transition in Georgia from one mind-set to the other has been rather swift. We went from one Republican governor who refused to consider such a law because he doesn't drink - hey, some of us don't fish, either, but he was able to spend our tax money on that - to a Republican successor, also a teetotaler, who decided that the true conservative philosophy should be to let voters in each community decide.

This time, resistance to the idea has been mild. Moral and religious organizations that railed against it in the past are largely silent now, many at least willing to allow a vote. Many individuals will go to the polls and vote "no," which is fine; that's what the law allows and is everyone's right.

Even then, we hope most will decide that the choice to purchase a legal product on a certain day of the week is between an individual and the retailer, and not something that warrants the state getting in the way.

This sudden change of heart we've seen may be attributed to another recent phenomenon: the tea party movement.

For the past two years or so, those who believe strongly in individual liberties over government control have joined forces, first in a loosely organized manner but increasingly in a more coordinated fashion. Tea partyers now scrutinize candidates for office based on their adherence to a strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. Their mantra, more or less, is "Don't Tread On Us," a belief that public policy should default to liberty rather than federal oversight on the economy, health care, property rights and a number of other issues.

Thus, it is inconsistent for someone to embrace the tea party's message, then turn around and advocate that the state should interfere with a free-market transaction. Of course, many folks don't seem to mind such incongruity if it suits their personal views, but it's easy to see how the two ideas don't jibe.

The arguments against Sunday alcohol sales are limp, at best. Some fear lifting the ban will increase the incidents of drunken driving. Yet it's hard to imagine how someone buying a six pack at the mini-mart is more likely to drive under the influence than those knocking back pitchers of suds at the local sports bar. If a spike in DUIs is the concern, that should be the target.

Then again, it's always easier to keep one genie in the bottle than try to put another one back in.

Some have simply fallen back on the idea that blue laws are a local tradition, a way of respecting the Sabbath in their communities. Many other laws at one time were viewed as "traditional," including Jim Crow laws and statues limiting what consenting adults can do in the privacy of their homes. That's no reason to keep a bad idea afloat in a civilized society.

However, the state law allowing local referendums still offers a nod to churches by banning sales before early afternoon. While libertarians might chafe at that restriction, it should offer little inconvenience and seems a reasonable compromise.

Beyond those fading arguments, there seems little reason for anyone to deny the right of their neighbors to buy what they want, when they want. True liberty means allowing others to make choices we may not make for ourselves, knowing that a free society allows for multiple points of view and lifestyle decisions.

The ability to buy alcoholic beverages on Sunday isn't a huge deal either way; most people have learned to stock up on Saturdays, and still might. Retailers likely won't see a huge boost in sales; the same number of purchases likely be made, just over seven days instead of six.

It matters more in a larger sense because we're finally becoming a state that believes personal choices are sacrosanct, and government should not interfere with them. A "yes" vote in the cities holding referendums on Nov. 8 will help affirm that notion.

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