Suit against Sunday hunt ban is filed

Harrisburg — Hunters United for Sunday Hunting has officially filed its lawsuit seeking to overturn Pennsylvania’s prohibition against Sunday hunting.

The suit was filed in the Middle District federal court in Harrisburg. Hunters United and Kathy Davis, of Speers, are listed as the petitioners. The Pennsylvania Game Commission is the defendant.

The suit notes that existing regulations say that, unless otherwise noted, “it is unlawful for any person to hunt for any furbearers or game on Sunday.”

Those exceptions allow for the Sunday hunting of coyotes, foxes and crows, it notes. Sunday hunting is also allowed on noncommercial regulated hunting grounds. Hunters can shoot feral swine seven days a week, too, while farmers can shoot deer for crop damage any day of the week.

Those rules “differentiate the rights of hunters” in ways that are unconstitutional under the First, Second and 14th amendments, reads the suit, written by attorney Peter Russo, of Mechanicsburg.

It attempts to make that case on six counts.

Count one cites recent Supreme Court decisions, in cases written by the minority, that suggest hunting is a right guaranteed under the Second Amendment. It alleges that “to limit select Pennsylvanians right to hunt and bear arms on Sunday is arbitrary and without a secular purpose.”

The second count makes many of the same arguments, but references the Pennsylvania Constitution and its guarantee of the right to bear arms, for hunting as well as other purposes.

Count three says the prohibition of Sunday hunting violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution in that it creates different classes of hunters, “one class who are not permitted to hunt furbearer, big game and/or small game on Sundays and other classes that permit furbearer, big game and/or small game to be taken on Sundays.”

“There is no longer a rational basis for the difference in treatment between the various classes,” the suit reads.

Count four again refers to the state Constitution and the “equal protection-disparate treatment” issue. It says the Game Commission and state Legislature have “intentionally” passed statutes and regulations creating multiple classes of “similarly situated but differently treated hunters.”

The result is that the “citizens of the Commonwealth no longer have equal access to the natural resources” of the state, it reads.

The fifth count tackles Sunday hunting on the religious angle. It notes that past court decisions have held that Sunday closure laws were permissible when they were created for secular reasons. The Sunday hunting ban, though, is religious in nature and therefore improper, the suit says.

Count six continues in that vein by citing the “religious freedom protection act.” It “forbids state and local government agencies from substantially burdening a person’s free exercise of religion,” the suit notes.

The Sunday hunting ban violates the religious tenets of some Hunters United members, it adds. The Game Commission could remedy that burden by lifting the ban in Sunday hunting, but has failed to do so, the suit alleges.

“I am a person of strong religious faith and observance, a political activist who advocates for including Biblical values in public policy, and I see absolutely no conflict between Sunday hunting and religion, in fact, they are mutually supportive,” said Josh First, of Harrisburg, a Hunters United board member.

“Hunting culture and hunters are the kind of people who people of faith naturally support. If you want more traditional values, then support hunting generally, and specifically Sunday hunting; it’s the biggest hunter recruitment tool available.”

If it seems odd that the suit names the Game Commission – whose board adopted a resolution in support of Sunday hunting in 2010 – as defendant, that’s a matter of necessity, said Brad Gehman, of Lancaster County, a board member for Hunters United.

A plaintiff can’t sue a state, he said; it has to single out a regulatory agency. In this case that’s the Game Commission.

“It’s a bit of an oddball situation,” Gehman said.

“All of us involved in the legal challenge strongly support the Pennsylvania Game Commission and its future success; PGC’s role in this suit is a simple, unfortunate formality,” Davis said.

It’s all the more strange because the Game Commission believes it doesn’t have the power to do what Hunters United wants. In every other case when hunting has been permitted on Sundays – for coyotes and foxes, for example, it was state lawmakers who made it possible, said commission spokesman Travis Lau.

There’s no reason to believe things should be any different here, he added.

“It is our position that we lack the authority to lift the prohibition,” Lau said.

First previously said that may be true. But if the courts give the commission the authority to allow Sunday hunting, or at least direct it to roll Sundays into seasons in some way, lawmakers will get involved, he added.

Whatever it takes, hunters need Sunday hunting, Gehman said. Families with children especially need the extra day, he added. In many cases, the extra day – free from baseball practice and soccer games and other commitments – might mean the difference between getting kids in the woods and not, he said.

Whether the Game Com­mission chooses to allow Sunday hunting for squirrels or some other species is immaterial, he added; professionals can set seasons and bag limits accordingly. Hunters just need whatever time can be given them.

“That’s what this is all about,” he said.

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