The 533-member congregation at Whitfield Baptist Church lost a founding father in March.

On a placid spring night, Ronnie Dyer, a charter member of the church and Dalton Fire Department lieutenant, was killed on the North Bypass by an alleged drunk driver.

“That shook up the church,” said Pastor Wayne Cofield, who believes drinking alcohol is a sin.

Now five months later, a battle brews over a proposed referendum on whether to allow liquor by the drink on Sundays in Dalton. Monday night, the members of the Dalton City Council are expected to place a referendum on the Nov. 7 ballot allowing voters to make the decision.

Supporters hope it will increase business locally and make Dalton more competitive with larger cities that serve alcohol seven days a week. Detractors fear selling alcohol on Sundays could cause an increase in drunk driving and lead to other social problems, such as alcoholism and divorce.

Technically, alcohol is already being sold on Sunday.

In December, council members voted to extend alcohol serving hours from midnight on Saturday to 2 a.m. on Sunday. Sales are not allowed on Sunday after 2 a.m. until Monday at 10 a.m. Representatives of the Dalton Hospitality Association and Rick Tanner, director of the Northwest Georgia Trade and Convention Center, asked for the change because New Year’s Eve was on a Saturday. But they also said local restaurants are losing business to Chattanooga and Atlanta throughout the year because of later serving hours in those cities.

T.J. Kaikobad believes a lack of Sunday liquor by the drink causes Dalton to trail other communities in business development. Kaikobad is president of the Dalton Hospitality Association, which requested the referendum earlier this year. He is also the owner of the Dalton Depot restaurant and a member of the trade center authority board.

“We realize that not only does it have strong economic impact to the area by bringing in more development, more business and creating a circulating economy,” Kaikobad said. “In order to stay competitive with our local and regional competitors, we’ve got to have a level playing field. Right now we’re disadvantaged to Chattanooga, we’re disadvantaged to Barnsley Gardens, and pretty soon we feel communities like Fort Oglethorpe are going to seize the initiative.”

The referendum would not allow alcohol sales in all businesses. The majority would be restaurants and hotels, city administrator Butch Sanders said. And only businesses that have more than 50 percent of their annual sales from food and seat at least 60 people or receive at least 50 percent of their income from room rentals would be allowed to serve alcohol from 12:30 p.m. until midnight on Sunday.

The city has 59 alcohol pouring licenses on file. It’s unclear how many of these businesses would be allowed to serve alcohol on Sundays if the referendum was on the ballot and approved by voters.

Placing the referendum on the ballot requires positive votes from three of the five council members. Mayor Ray Elrod and councilmen Dick Lowrey and Terry Christie have told The Daily Citizen they support letting residents vote on the referendum. Councilman Charlie Bethel said he will wait until Monday’s meeting before unveiling his position.

“Unless it’s something that I’m pushing, I don’t like to pre-vote,” Bethel said. “I like to wait and cast my vote when it’s time to cast my vote.”

Councilman Bobby Grant said he hasn’t made up his mind, but “is leaning” toward putting the referendum on the ballot. He also wants to know the Dalton-Whitfield Chamber of Commerce’s stance on Sunday liquor by the drink.

“I’d like to see other people take a stand that should be doing it,” Grant said.

Chamber president George Woodward said the organization supports allowing residents to vote. But he said the group wants to gather information from other cities that have Sunday alcohol sales before deciding whether to support it. Woodward said he sent a letter to the mayor and council last week stating the organization’s position.

“It’s a business issue really,” Woodward said. “We really want to see what the economic impact is. If the data warrants, we’ll look at it further before we say we’re for or against it.”

In addition to the Dalton Hospitality Association, the Downtown Dalton Development Authority and trade center head Tanner have publicly supported Sunday liquor by the drink. Tanner believes Sunday sales will make the trade center more competitive in wooing conventions to Dalton and could lure a developer to build an attached hotel.

Council members held a public hearing in May that attracted more than 100 people. The hearing served as the public’s chance to tell council members their opinions. Sanders said the council may hear public comments at the Monday meeting.

Rodger Whorton, pastor of Good Hope Baptist Church and chairman of morals and civic concerns for the North Georgia Baptist Association, said the availability of alcohol “is a great danger” and increases the chance for abuse.

“It’s absolutely crazy to assume that they’re going to drive (outside of Dalton) if they can’t get it here,” Whorton said.

Whorton offered an analogy.

“If I’ve got a batch of cookies on my counter, I love them and I’ll eat those things like crazy,” he said. “But if I’ve got to go down to the store in the first place, I’m probably not going to do it, and if someone is going to make me some I probably wouldn’t drive to get them either.”

Kaikobad disagrees, saying people will either drive to other cities to buy alcohol on Sunday or simply stock up the night before.

“For a person who wants something and is hell bent on getting it, Sunday is not going to be a hindrance,” Kaikobad said. “They’re going to find a way to get it.”

The Southern Baptist Convention recently toughened its position against alcohol. In June, the organization passed a resolution expressing the organization’s “total opposition to the manufacturing, advertising, distributing and consuming of alcoholic beverages.” The resolution also urged convention members to support legislation intended to curb alcohol use.

Cofield helped lead the effort to defeat similar Sunday liquor by the drink proposals in 2000 and 2003. He said local churches along with the Citizens Against Sunday Sales (CASS), a group of local church members, spent approximately $18,000 in their fight against Sunday alcohol sales.

Kaikobad does not think Sunday alcohol sales will lead to increased alcohol-related crimes. Kaikobad referenced a study by the Rome Police Department that found alcohol-related offenses — underage possession, furnishing alcohol to minors, DUI, pedestrian under the influence, open container, and drunk and drinking in public — declined in the 19 months after Sunday alcohol sales were approved in Rome, compared to the 19 months before they were approved, from 1,389 violations to 1,284.

Last year, a representative from the Dalton Hospitality Association asked council members to place a Sunday liquor by the drink referendum on the November ballot, but council members declined the request.

The Whitfield County Board of Commissioners last week discussed the possibility of adding a liquor by the drink referendum to the November ballot. Approximately 100 people attended the commissioners’ meeting, many of whom objected to the measure. The county currently allows beer and wine sales. Only two businesses have licenses for pouring beer and wine.

Cofield expects the opposition to be out in force.

“We’re ready to fight it any way we can,” Cofield said. “We’re doing this to please the Lord and keep our city and county from having one more day of having the alcohol problem.”

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