Norway’s conservative government coalition has been facing strong opposition to its proposal to allow stores to open for shopping on Sundays, and now the country’s leading bishop has joined the chorus of critics. She claims that Sunday shopping even violates the spirit of the Norwegian Constitution.
“Sunday is a holiday in our Christian and humanitarian heritage, and one of the pillars of our rythmn of life,” Bishop Helga Haugland Byfuglien told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Wednesday. “As I see it, it’s not in line with Paragraph 2 of the Constitution to change this.”
The paragraph the bishop is referring to declares that Norwegian law is built upon Christian and humanitarian values, meant to secure democracy, the rule of law and human rights. While some may feel they have a right to shop on Sundays, or open for business, Byfuglien is joining opposition politicians and even labour unions and some store owners who want to see shopping centers and most grocery stores remain closed.
Byfuglien, leader of the bishops of The Norwegian Church, believes that the values specified in the Constitution depend on Sunday remaining a day off for the vast majority. One day off a week, she claims, is “an important expression” of Christian and humanitarian values. In her contribution to the ongoing hearings on the government’s proposal to liberalize current regulations against store openings on Sundays, the bishop maintained that “1,000 years of history and ideological foundation can’t be changed, just because the government has faith in market forces. Sunday-open stores can block other important ideological questions.”
Right to choose
Government officials continue to believe, meanwhile, that individual Norwegians should be allowed to decide when they want a day off. “We agree that everyone needs a day off,” State Secretary Bjørgulv Vinje Borgundvaag in the Ministry of Culture told NRK. “Different religions have different days of rest. We think it’s best that folks can choose themselves when they want to have a day off and when they can shop.”
Borgundvaag added that he can’t see how allowing stores to open on Sunday if they so choose, and thus allowing Norwegians to shop on Sunday, goes against the tenets of the church. The government has had two proposals up for hearing in recent months, one allowing all stores to open on a nationwide basis and another that would allow local governments to decide on whether stores in their communities can open.
The government also stresses that current law already allows many stores to open on Sundays, including all those smaller than 100 square meters, those located in areas frequented by tourists, and gardening centers that also offer a wide variety of merchandise other than plants and flowers. That has frustrated other merchants who are prevented from opening on Sunday and feel competitors that meet current regulations have an unfair advantage. That includes the dominant grocery chain NorgesGruppen in Norway, which has publicly opposed all stores being allowed to open on Sundays while it enjoys booming business on Sundays at its own stores in resort areas that are allowed to open. NorgesGruppen’s rivals think that’s both hypcritial and unfair.
Liberal Party not so liberal after all
Labour unions that have been fighting the proposal to allow Sunday shopping, despite the jobs it would create, will likely embrace the bishop’s remarks. They already were encouraged last week when the leader of one of the government’s support parties, the Liberals (Venstre), seemed to waffle on her initial support for Sunday openings, claiming that the proposal to leave the issue up to local governments didn’t meet her requirements. That set off political debate and accusations that the Liberals were once again failing to liberalize regulations as promised in the election campaign.
Prime Minister Erna Solberg, meanwhile, remains confident that she’ll be able to strike a compromise with the Liberals and gain their needed support for the government proposal on Sunday openings before it comes up for debate in the Parliament this fall. As in the cases of earlier opposition to evening shopping in the 1980s, or even opposition to allowing state broadcaster NRK to offer colour TV, Solberg told news bureau NTB last week that she thinks the opposition to Sunday openings will fade once the reform is in place. “This is a typical case of an issue that many people will like and appreciate in the future, and which few parties want to go along with now,” Solberg said. If it ends with local governments being able to decide on store openings, some parties and labour union leaders claim they’ll demand that communities where they hold municipal power keep stores closed.