CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Jamie Gwaltney | The Charlotte Observer) - North Carolina restaurants say allowing them to serve you a morning mimosa for Sunday brunch would be a boost for business – and they're pushing a bill that would allow them to do that.
But the legislation, which passed the N.C. Senate 32-12 earlier this month and is in a House committee on Thursday, is facing opposition from social conservatives who worry that it would be a distraction to church services and who also warn about possible health risks.
If it passes, the so-called "brunch bill" would allow cities and counties to pass ordinances allowing alcohol sales starting at 10 a.m. Sundays instead of noon. A late addition to the Senate bill expanded the provision to include grocery stores, convenience markets, private clubs and any other place licensed to sell alcohol.
Senate Bill 155 also would loosen restrictions on the state's distillery industry. Among the changes, distilleries could sell five bottles per year rather than one to each customer.
N.C. Sen. Tommy Tucker, a Union County Republican who voted against the bill, said he wanted to preserve some reverence for churches and families on Sunday mornings, even as the state's culture changes.
"Times have changed. The minds of the legislators have changed," Tucker said.
Tucker said he also opposed the bill because he worries about people drinking both Saturday night and then Sunday morning without a chance to sober up. He also said he's concerned that more people would drive under the influence after Sunday morning drinks.
Social ills also could increase, he said, as people would be able to buy alcohol earlier in the day and out of the state's control at distilleries rather than ABC stores.
Andy Taylor, a professor of political science at N.C. State University, said this bill has pitted different interests against each other. Restaurants, manufacturers, the tourism industry and urban areas have generally supported the bill out of economic interests, but socially conservative and religious groups have opposed it. He said social conservatives see a greater opportunity for access to alcohol as having negative social consequences.
"Historically, North Carolina is a southern state with some of the same traditions as deeper southern states," Taylor said.
In the past 20 to 25 years, restrictions on alcohol have been fading as North Carolina becomes more like the nation overall, he said. "This is part of a broader change," he said.
The Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, has focused on the public health and safety repercussions in his lobbying against the bill.
"Alcohol is not an ordinary commodity," Creech said. "It is inherently problematic."
Creech said allowing Sunday morning alcohol sales would be insensitive to North Carolina churches whose services rarely end before noon.
"Since the current law has been in deference and respect to churches, the question is where is the respect now?" Creech asked.
Fayetteville City Council member Bill Crisp, an outspoken critic of the brunch bill, also expressed concerns about people driving under the influence if they begin drinking in a restaurant Sunday mornings. He said it's less likely people would appoint a designated driver then.
"I think it is counterproductive to have people getting drunk at 11 a.m.," Crisp said.
Rob Schofield, director of research at N.C. Policy Watch, a liberal advocacy group, said most opposition to the bill is based on moral and religious arguments. He said some believe the bill disrespects religious services on Sunday, but the legislation is more an effect of the state's modernization and the demise of old-fashioned blue laws that restricted alcohol sales on Sundays.
Paul Verica, the chef and owner at Heritage Food and Drink in Waxhaw, said allowing Sunday morning alcohol sales could mean a significant increase in check balances.
On average, morning check balances are around $15 per person for Sunday brunch. In the afternoon, when alcohol can be purchased, check balances increase to $22 to $26 per person.
"We open for brunch at 11 a.m., and in that first hour, there is a definite difference," Verica said.
But just because customers might be able to get a Bloody Mary at 10 a.m. doesn't mean they will, said Patrick Whalen, the operating manager at 5Church in uptown Charlotte.
While the average guest may spend more money, Whalen doesn't think there would be the same level of consumption compared with the typical Sunday afternoon. Whalen said the biggest difference would be for the customer, who is getting more options.
"It is good for the consumer," he said.
Local restaurants partnered with the N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association to campaign for the brunch bill. Communities that are popular for their brunch options and tourist destinations will benefit the most from the bill's passage, said Lynn Minges, the association's president.