By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — You can drink at a bar or play professional sports on Sundays in Pennsylvania, but you still can’t fire a gun at a white-tailed deer.
A remnant of the state’s “blue laws” meant to restrict commerce in religious observation of the Sabbath, the Sunday hunting prohibition is one of those perennial debates Pennsylvania lawmakers just can’t seem to reconcile.
Hunters have long lobbied against the statute, but farmers, who own plenty of land hunted six days a week, are opposed to any changes.
It appears a judge may end the debate. A grassroots group of pro-Sunday hunting Pennsylvanians is taking the case to court.
Hunters United for Sunday Hunting filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Middle District of Pennsylvania court earlier this month challenging the ban’s constitutionality.
Citing the U.S. and state constitutions, the lawsuit claims “to limit selected Pennsylvanians’ right to hunt and bear arms on Sunday is arbitrary and without a secular purpose.”
Attorneys from the law office of Peter J. Russo, which represents HUSH, declined to comment on the litigation. The 26-page complaint brings six counts against the Pennsylvania Game Commission, from violating equal protection acts to imposing on hunters’ religious freedoms.
The complaint claims the prohibition advances no substantial government interest and gives several rationales why hunting on Sunday would be a reasonable change. Hunting is on the decline in Pennsylvania – and elsewhere – so Sunday hunting proponents say this is a way to bring back a tradition to families who are only free on weekends.
“Given that most people work Monday through Friday and children under 18 years of age are in school Monday through Friday, Sundays comprise fifty percent of the available time to hunt in Pennsylvania,” the complaint says.
The case, filed with Middle District Chief Judge Yvette Kane, asks for a temporary or permanent end to the Sunday hunting ban statute.
Many in the hunting communities support the change. A Facebook page sponsored by the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance, “Fight for Sunday Hunting,” has more than 21,000 likes. The topic is hotly contested on HuntingPA.com, a forum website for Pennsylvania sportsmen and women to speak freely on hunting issues. A pro-Sunday hunting coalition released a report in 2011 saying eliminating the prohibition would give Pennsylvania more than 8,000 jobs and an extra $764 million in annual economic activity.
The ban isn’t just a parochial leftover from a bygone era, but a protection for private property owners. The majority of hunting here occurs with permission on privately owned farm land, and many farmers aren’t keen on having someone knock on their door on a Sunday.
About 80 percent of hunting occurs on private property, according to the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau. The agency, representing more than 50,000 farmers statewide, led the charge against a bill in 2010 that would’ve overturned the prohibition.
Mark O’Neill, a spokesman for the bureau, said the group is still opposed to changing the law.
“In general, farmers and hunters have had good relationships over the years trying to work together,” O’Neill said.
Farmers rely on hunters, to a certain degree, to keep deer from overrunning their land or destroying crops. As such, they’ve provided their land for recreational hunting uses.
Every day but Sunday, that is.
O’Neill said it’s not so much about it being a “blue law” anymore. It’s simply the law, one that farmers have come to appreciate.
“For a number of personal reasons, and everything else, they believe that Sunday is a day we don’t need hunting,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill said PFB is also opposed to opening up hunting on Sundays on non-farm lands. That’s because of how closely situated private farmland generally is to other wooded areas where hunters may be around.
“If they’re following a deer from a game land onto private land, are they just going to stop? Unlikely.” O’Neill said. “A bullet doesn’t stop when it hits the property line. The bullet keeps going.”
O’Neill said others involved in outdoor recreation, like hikers, bicyclists and orienteering groups, also oppose Sunday hunting. The Humane Society of the United States also took a stand against Sunday hunting the last time the Pennsylvania General Assembly tackled the issue.
During big game seasons, trails in state game lands are closed to non-hunters, said Travis Lau, a spokesman with the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Sunday is the day other outdoor enthusiasts can roam without fear of a bullet or arrow whizzing by.
In general, hunters are good at adhering to the law. State records show only 17 citations issued for illegal Sunday hunting in the last three years.
Lau said those 17 violations typically come from landowners who think there’s someone hunting on their property. And in most cases, it may be a hunter who is unaware of the law, or perhaps hunting something specific that he or she thought there was an exemption – coyotes, foxes, crows and feral swine can be hunted on Sundays. But because they’re rarely hunted, those exemptions don’t offer much controversy for the farmers who want to keep Sundays for themselves.
Getting caught can be costly: the Sunday hunting violation itself carries a $100 to $200 fine. Violators can also be charged with unlawful or attempted taking of game, which could add another $1,000. A hunter who marks and kills a trophy-sized buck on a Sunday could pay $5,000 in additional restitution.
In 2010, PGC prepped for a potential change in law, passing a resolution supporting lawmakers in removing the Sunday prohibition and spelling out a measured approach to implementing any changes.
Lau said the commission’s lawyers or other state counsel will defend the HUSH lawsuit in court, though it has not yet been served.
Contact Melissa Daniels at firstname.lastname@example.org