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Sunday hunting and blue laws

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There is still a law on the books in Pennsylvania which says that people may not take in a movie on Sunday. There’s another that says people can’t play pool on Sunday. Those laws are not enforced, but they’re on the books. It’s one of the so-called “blue laws” that were adopted beginning in 1786, in part, to encourage residents of the Keystone State to attend church.


At the time, the law read, “Whoever does or performs any worldly employment or business whatsoever on the Lord’s day, commonly called Sunday, works of necessity and charity only exempted, or uses or practices any game, hunting, shooting, sport or diversion whatsoever on the same day not authorized by law is guilty.”


For many years, shopkeepers were not allowed to open their shops on Sunday. Most of those laws have either been repealed or are now simply ignored. Two blue laws, however, are still enforced: the ban on Sunday car sales and the ban on most hunting on Sundays.


On June 26, the Pennsylvania Senate passed a bill that will allow hunting on three Sundays of the year. Supporters originally wanted to open hunting on Sundays through all hunting seasons, but opposition from the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau (PFB) lead to the three Sundays compromise, with one Sunday to be in deer rifle season, another to be in deer archery season and a third to be designated by the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC).


For a decade, members of the PFB have opposed allowing hunting on Sundays with the argument that they wanted a day of peace and quiet during hunting season. A statement from PFB reads, “Farmers want a day of peace and quiet. Most farmers work every day of the week, but try to spend extra time with their families on Sundays. It’s about the only day they get to use their own land for recreational purposes. They don’t want gunshots ringing across their property or hunters knocking on their doors asking for permission to hunt on their land on Sundays to enjoy their property.”


It is already illegal for a hunter to hunt on a farmer’s property without permission from the farmer, but the PFB said in order to adopt a neutral stand on hunting on three-Sundays a year, it wanted the legislation to include strengthened trespassing legislation, so that’s part of the bill.


No one disputes the notion that blue laws in general, specifically in Pennsylvania, were originally adopted to serve a religious purpose. It might seem reasonable to assume they would have been struck down by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), but the court has upheld various blue laws over the years. In relation to no-shopping Sundays, SCOTUS wrote in 1961 that while blue laws were originally religious in nature, they “have taken on the secular purpose of promoting the health and welfare of workers.”


A group called Hunters United for Sunday Hunting (HUSH) filed a lawsuit against the PGC in 2013, charging that the ban on Sunday hunting constituted a violation of the group’s Second Amendment right to bear arms, and it claimed that hunting is a federally protected right.


Federal Judge Yvette Kane dismissed the lawsuit in June 2014. The SCOTUS decision HUSH was using to buttress its case, “actually ties the codification of the Second Amendment to the populace’s fear that the federal government would destroy the citizen’s militia by taking away their arms, not that the federal government would regulate recreational hunting.”


The ban on Sunday hunting does not apply to coyotes, foxes, crows and feral pigs, and Kane agreed with HUSH that part of the law created different classes of hunters. But she did not agree that the creation of those classes lead to unequal protection under the law.


The PGC, which had previously voted in favor of ending the Sunday ban, has nevertheless asserted that as long as the Sunday ban has a rational basis, it does not violate the constitution.


HUSH also could not convince the judge that the ban “coerces them to participate in any state religion on violation of the First Amendment.” The First Amendment says, in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” and clearly, the Sunday hunting ban was adopted to further the goals of Christianity. We think the court got it wrong when it upheld the ban as being constitutional.


But the next step in the process is for the bill to go to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, where it is likely to pass. It may be that there will be hunting on Sunday before rifle deer season starts in the fall.

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