'Right to Food' Lawsuit Could End Maine Sunday Hunting Ban

'Right to Food' Lawsuit Could End Maine Sunday Hunting Ban

Does a “right to food” supersede a ban on Sunday hunting?

That’s the question at the heart of a novel lawsuit filed in Maine last month. The plaintiffs, a husband and wife with four children, claim the state’s prohibition against Sunday hunting violates their “natural, inherent and unalienable right to food” as written in the state’s newly passed constitutional amendment.

“Maine’s ban on Sunday hunting is a historical and religious anachronism,” the lawsuit adds.

Eleven states still restrict Sunday hunting in some way, but many of those bans are being rolled back. Maine and Massachusetts are the only states with statewide, year-round bans. This year, Virginia lawmakers repealed the state’s Sunday hunting ban on public land, and Pennsylvania is in the process of allowing hunting on all Sundays.

If this suit is successful, it would be a first-of-its-kind win for hunting rights in the United States. Maine is the only state to pass a “right to food” constitutional amendment, but the strategy could provide a blueprint for other states looking to expand and secure access for hunters on every day of the week.

Hunting in Maine In order to understand the lawsuit’s argument, it’s important to understand how hunters have traditionally accessed land in the Pine Tree State. About 95% of the land in Maine is private, but state law allows hunters to access private parcels as long as the land isn’t posted with “No Trespassing” signs and the landowner has not personally barred hunters from the property.

Hunters usually request permission anyway, but that permissive culture is part of the reason Maine is one of the last states to repeal its Sunday hunting ban. A small but vocal group of landowners support the ban because they want at least one day each week during which they don’t have to think about hunters on their property.

This year, the state legislature considered a bill that would have repealed the ban. One Maine landowner told the committee that he and his family enjoy walking their property on Sundays.

“They just want to know if they climb the mountain on Sunday they are not going to get shot at,” he said.

That bill would have allowed landowners to prohibit hunting. An amended version of the bill would have allowed Sunday hunting only for landowners and those to whom they expressly give permission. Even with these provisions, the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee voted 8-3 against the measure.

Jared Bornstein has been organizing the lawsuit as the executive director of Maine Hunters United for Sunday Hunting. He is also a lobbyist in the state legislature.

“The honest to God truth about Sunday hunting in the legislature…most of them don’t care that much, and they don’t want to take a controversial position for something they don’t really care about,” Bornstein explained. “The people who do care about it…have been unable to break through that apathy.”

Others argue that allowing Sunday hunting will prompt more landowners to prohibit hunting on their property. This will undoubtedly occur in certain circumstances, but recent polling conducted by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IFW) shows that 64% of landowners who “always” allow access would continue to allow the same level of access if hunting was permitted on Sundays.

In fact, 10% of that group would be more likely to allow access if the Sunday hunting ban is repealed. The largest percentage of landowners (68%) who say they are more likely to restrict access say they “rarely” grant access as it is.

The Lawsuit Giving landowners the authority to prohibit hunting on Sundays hasn’t been enough to repeal the ban, so now hunters are turning from the legislature to the courts.

Last year, Maine voters adopted a “right to food” constitutional amendment via referendum. Here’s the text of the amendment in full:

"All individuals have a natural, inherent, and unalienable right to save and exchange seeds and the right to grow, raise, harvest, produce, and consume the food of their own choosing for their own nourishment, sustenance, bodily health, and well-being, as long as an individual does not commit trespassing, theft, poaching, or other abuses of private property rights, public lands, or natural resources in the harvesting, production, or acquisition of food."

Bornstein said that the amendment began its life as a right to hunt and fish provision similar to those passed in other states. It was broadened to ensure hunting and fishing rights would survive rules and regulations imposed by the legislature. It doesn’t specifically mention hunting and fishing because the authors didn’t want to narrow its scope by listing individual activities.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit—a married couple named Joel and Virginia Parker—argue that the Sunday hunting ban violates this constitutional right because it doesn’t provide sufficient time or opportunity to harvest “the food of their own choosing,” i.e., wild game. Joel Parker works five days a week, which only gives them one day per week to teach their four children to hunt or hunt together.

“Moreover, due to the ban on Sunday hunting, the Parkers cannot plan a full weekend hunt as a family in more remote areas of the state because they only have one day per weekend to hunt,” the lawsuit states.

In 2021, Maine’s rifle whitetail season ran from October 30 through November 27, giving hunters who work Monday to Friday only five days to fill their tags.

The Parkers aren’t the only Mainers hurt by the hunting ban. Maine hunters who spoke to MeatEater expressed similar frustration at not being able to hunt 50% of the days they don’t have to work.

“For the majority of us that have to work full-time, the ban on Sunday hunting severely limits our ability to feed our families,” Kristine Thomas said. She is often tasked with using her vacation time to take care of elderly relatives, so that option isn’t available to her, either.

Even if adults can take vacation days during hunting season, John Meagher pointed out that kids often don’t have that luxury. “The state has no problem offering reasonable hunting and fishing lifetime licenses at a reduced cost for children, but many kids who played sports, such as my own, had soccer or fall baseball every Saturday,” he said. Meagher’s son is now 23 and didn’t have a chance to grow up going out into the woods.

Nick Cummings takes the landowner's perspective. “I own land that I pay taxes on. I hunt my land when I want, but I can’t on Sundays. Why shouldn’t I be able to do what I please with my own land every day of the week?” he asked.

The lawsuit notes that landowners would still be able to prohibit hunting on their property just as they do today. They could, for example, restrict hunting on Sundays but allow it every other day of the week.

In addition, allowing hunting on Sundays would not threaten wildlife populations. Jim Connolly, the Resource Management Director for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, told a joint legislative committee that Sunday hunting is a “social issue, not a biological discussion.” Other state wildlife officials whose states have repealed Sunday hunting bans have not documented increases in harvest due to the change.

“Not hunting on Sundays is not a biological need,” Bornstein pointed out. Maine is not reaching its deer or bear quotas as it is, so adding another day of hunting wouldn’t threaten the game populations regulated by the state. “I should be able to hunt when I want to hunt as long as I’m abiding by season dates and bag limits,” he concluded.

Landowner Allies? It’s important to note that not all Maine hunters support changing the status quo. Twenty-two percent of hunters moderately (6%) or strongly (16%) oppose allowing Sunday hunting during established hunting seasons, according to the Maine IFW. While a majority of landowners would continue to allow hunting on their properties, about one-third say they would restrict hunting access. For hunters who rely on these plots, a victory for the Sunday hunting campaign might mean limiting their own access.

In a state with such a high percentage of privately held land, it’s critical that landowners not be made the bad guys in this debate.

“Maine is more than 90% privately owned and without the support and generosity of our private landowners, our outdoor recreational opportunities would be severely limited,” Connolly told the legislature.

Sunday hunting bans are likely on the way out. But as with other land access issues, hunters can’t afford to alienate the folks they rely on to access the wild places they love to hunt.

The lawsuit has been filed in the Maine Superior Court and is backed by Maine Hunters United for Sunday Hunting and Hunter Nation. Bornstein expects the state attorney general to respond to the suit soon.

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