On a Sunday in January, a hunter grabs his .22 centerfire and heads out with a group of dog runners to hunt coyotes. They’ll scour local farms for tracks and turn the dogs loose. They’ll get one yodeler, almost for sure. Maybe two.
But on that same Sunday the same hunter can’t grab his bow and sit in a treestand on any of the same farms, hoping to fill his whitetail tag. No barking dogs. No gunshots to pierce the quiet, cold air. He’d just sit. Silently. And wait.
Isn’t Pennsylvania’s ban on Sunday hunting inherently contradictory?
With a few exceptions (coyotes, crows, foxes), Sunday hunting is illegal. Ironically, to me at least, it’s the farmers who are most strongly against it. They say they want Sundays to be days of peace and quiet. No guns banging. No hunters banging on doors to ask permission. Yet they welcome coyote hunting.
Bans on Sunday hunting go way back to the “blue laws” of the 17th century theocratic New Haven colony, a Christian culture where leaders wished to enforce the Old Testament’s fourth commandment. These statutes (no one knows for sure why they were called “blue laws”) forbade all unnecessary work on Sunday, the Sunday sale of cigarettes, and many other activities.
Blue law history in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania, named for its Quaker founder William Penn, also had a strong religious culture, and its ban on Sunday hunting existed long before it was seriously enforced in the late 1800s.
Landowners complained that working class people, whose only opportunity to hunt was on Sunday, were shooting up everything from game animals to songbirds to feed their impoverished families. The state legislature put a stop to that by reviving the blue law as a game law.
Today landowners are still a leading voice against Sunday hunting. On behalf of farmers, the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau lobbies against it. Many farmers have said that if Sunday hunting is legalized, they’ll post their land against public hunting. Why not just post “No Sunday Hunting”?
Some people argue for the ban on Sunday hunting by saying wildlife needs a day off from the chase. If wildlife biologists thought that argument had any merit, it would not be legal in the 39 states where Sunday hunting is neither banned nor restricted. The Pennsylvania Board of Game Commissioners even passed a resolution endorsing Sunday hunting last June (although it is up the the state Legislature to legalize Sunday hunting, something it has yet to do). Besides, don’t hawks, coyotes and every other predator need a Sunday dinner? And aren’t prey animals on the menu?
Are there social reasons to ban Sunday hunting?
Some groups claim Sunday is the only day non-hunters can observe, photograph, and enjoy nature without worrying about guns being fired around them. The truth is that non-hunters have plenty of opportunity outside of hunting seasons to venture into the woods. And they can always ask permission to do that on posted land.
Here’s a social reason in favor of Sunday hunting. Having Saturdays packed with sports activities, today’s youth get even fewer opportunities to hunt than the average working adult. Must a kid choose between football and hunting? At the end of a busy week, wouldn’t Sunday afternoon be a great time for Junior to bond with Dad in a deer blind?
Are there enforcement reasons?
Opponents say Sunday hunting will force Wildlife Conservation Officers (WCOs) to work more overtime – with a negative impact on Game Commission budgets. But poachers don’t take Sundays off, so don’t WCOs already have a seven day per week job? Plus, the argument can be made that the Game Commission would even generate additional revenue by allowing Sunday hunting. By giving people an extra weekend day to hunt, lapsed hunters may be willing to purchase a license again, and more non-residents would surely consider coming to the state if they could get in a full weekend of hunting.
Would it really help the economy?
A recent study done by Southwick Associates, for the Pennsylvania Legislature’s Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, estimated that the economic effect of allowing Sunday hunting throughout all hunting seasons would be $804 million. Further, Sunday hunting would support an estimated 7,400 full- and part-time jobs and generate almost $57 million in state and local taxes. The estimated economic benefit of deer hunting on only the two Sundays of the general deer season is $317 million, which would support an estimated 3,300 jobs and generate $23 million in state and local taxes.
Yet another study found that if Sunday hunting were allowed in all states where it’s now banned, it could result in more than 27,000 new jobs, paying more than $730 million in wages, and contributing about $2.2 billion in additional economic activity.
What about religious reasons?
What other recreational activities are banned on Sunday? Fishing has been legal in Pennsylvania for more than 50 years. To be consistent, if we favor a ban on Sunday hunting, shouldn’t we favor a ban on Sunday fishing, too? Or can fishermen keep the Sabbath on the stream, but not hunters in the woods? What about golf? Movies? Skiing? Football?
Could a ban on Sunday hunting send a message that hunting is a less moral form of recreation? If so, the ban plays into the hands of animal rights activists.
Christians who take church attendance seriously should be asking other questions: Do we keep the Sabbath because we’re religious legalists? Do we serve God with an obligatory but half-hearted hour in a church pew, and a mad rush home to watch football? Why not by climbing into a treestand? Is God honored when we keep the Sabbath because we want to, or because state laws forbid us from a recreational pursuit?
I understand the fear some people have of making Sunday like every other day. The truth is it’s already like every other day, and Christians should set the standard for themselves regarding how they keep the Sabbath. Besides, the ban on Sunday hunting discriminates against those within the Judeo-Christian heritage (Jews and Seventh-Day Adventists) who worship on Saturday. So it’s impossible to make the case against Sunday hunting on consistent religious grounds.
Yes, the Bible says to keep the Sabbath holy, but I can’t think of a single reason why a civil government should single out one positive, wholesome form of recreation for prohibition, while allowing every other one.
Steve Sorensen writes an award-winning newspaper column called “The Everyday Hunter.” He is pastor of an Evangelical Free Church in Russell, Pa., and a Life Member of the NRA. More of his writing can be read online at www.EverydayHunter.com.
Read also: Coalition Formed to Fight Sunday Hunting Bans