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BY KIRK MANTAY
For many people, hunting is about more than just the game harvested. It’s a shared experience with friends and a family tradition passed down through the generations.
But in Maine, Massachusetts, Delaware, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Virginia, the days you can hunt are limited by more than just the season. These states all have Sunday hunting bans — even on private land.
In Pennsylvania and Virginia, hunters are preparing to go to court over what they see as antiquated rules.
While hunters in 39 states enjoy full hunting rights on Sundays, and an additional five states offer limited Sunday hunting opportunities, Virginia and Pennsylvania are two of the last states in the country to maintain Sunday hunting bans. According to 2011 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data, Virginia and Pennsylvania are losing hunters each year, and have been for over a decade. Reasons behind this decline stem from a lack of access (both time and space) to hunt, as well as the failure to recruit new hunters into the sport.
Despite a lack of public opposition to Sunday hunting, pressure from hunters to repeal the ban and acknowledgment from the scientific community that the “Sunday day of rest” theory has no biological merit, these states’ lawmakers remain committed to a ban.
The legislatures control the Sunday hunting ban in both states. Most other hunting regulations are administered by the state game departments. In 2011, both game departments passed resolutions recommending that ban be overturned. The state governments ignored the recommendations.
At a hearing Jan. 22 in the Virginia House of Delegates, Del. Matt Farriss expressed his continued opposition to Sunday hunting saying he believes he has a personal duty to “honor the 12 Commandments.”
The Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance also supports a Sunday ban saying in an open letter that if Sunday hunting was allowed, hound hunters would also want to hunt on Sunday and that would lead to the end of hound hunting in the state, presumably due to the “liberal retrieve” law allowing hound owners on any property at any time without permission to pursue their dogs. Proposed compromise legislation excludes hunting with hounds due to testimony from worried alliance members at the House of Delegates in 2012. The organization wrote an article in its 2013 newsletter titled “Sunday hunting is bad for rural Virginia,” saying allowing it would strengthen the anti-hunting population. It ended with a poem called “Another hunter who will go to church on Sunday.”
The continued inaction by the state governments to repeal the ban has prompted hunters’ rights groups, including Pennsylvania’s Hunters United for Sunday Hunting (HUSH) and Safari Club International to take the issue to court. The issue is simple, said Brad Gehman, director of HUSH.
“This is about the next generation of hunters, not about ourselves,” he said. “Sunday hunting creates outdoor opportunities for families with children who are busy with school and sports six days a week.” In 2013, HUSH sued the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania after constitutional scholars analyzed the ban and concluded that the Sunday hunting ban would fall if challenged in court.
Since the case is a constitutional one without a request for emergency legal remedy, it is not an immediate priority for federal judges, Gehman said. However, he — and Pennsylvania hunters — remain optimistic.
“After several years of failed attempts to repeal the ban with legislation, this year the state is going to have to provide a secular answer in court for the question: ‘Why Sunday?'” Gehman said.
In Virginia, a group called “Legalize Virginia Hunting for All” is mustering its third consecutive campaign to attempt a repeal on the Sunday hunting ban. The tactic is different because in Virginia, hunting is an explicit constitutional right. Matt O’Brien, director of the group, has repeatedly told the media he’s hopeful for a legislative solution in 2014 and would rather resolve the issue legislatively than in the courts.
He may have reason to hope. A bipartisan group of elected officials drafted a pair of compromise bills on the issue. While the bills will face stern opposition in Republican-dominated committees, the compromise bills would not apply to public land or large areas around houses of worship, and would require the signature of any landowner who allows it.
The groundswell of opposition to the Virginia ban has caught the attention of national conservation organizations who recognize the ban’s negative impact on hunter recruitment and wildlife funding.
“The unconstitutional ban on Sunday hunting robs hunters of half of their potential time in the field, and has absolutely no basis in science or conservation,” Craig Kauffman, director of Safari Club International, said in a press release.
Hunters see the ban as dictating how they use their free time and their relationship they have with the land — particularly land they own, said Virginia hunter Chuck Lafoon.
“It makes no sense that during the hunting season, the state can tell me I can’t hunt on my own property one day a week with my nephew,” he said. “All kinds of other destructive things like alcohol sales, gambling parlors and strip clubs are legal on Sunday, but not hunting with your kids on your own land. Let me know if you can figure out why.” ♦
Editor’s note: On March 5, with litigation pending against the Commonwealth of Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed a bill allowing Sunday hunting on private land and public waters.
— Kirk Mantay has authored and managed the River Mud Blog since 2007. He has written numerous conservation-related pieces for print and electronic publication. A lifelong sportsman, Mantay joined OWAA in 2013 and is finishing his first novel. He works as a habitat restoration manager in Annapolis, Md., and spends his spare time outdoors with wife Amy and their son Henry.