State lawmakers recently approved a bill that would legalize Sunday hunting on public lands in Virginia. The legislation is now on its way to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s desk for signature.
Senate Bill 8 passed the Virginia Senate in January and advanced on to the Virginia House of Delegates, where it was handedly approved yesterday with a 69-28 vote.
The passage of SB8 comes eight years after the Virginia General Assembly voted to approve Sunday hunting on private lands only. If signed into law by Gov. Youngkin, the bill will wipe the commonwealth’s long-held Sunday hunting ban from the books completely by July 2022.
Virginia is one of a handful of states with antiquated “blue laws” that prohibit or otherwise restrict Sunday hunting. The laws stem from a time when all sorts of religious codes—from observation of the Sabbath to prohibitions on alcohol consumption and gambling—were routinely folded into state statutes across the country.
Isaac Weintz is a board member of the Capital Region Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers—a chapter comprised of members from Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia.
“It’ll now go to the governor’s desk, and I would expect that in the next 10 days or so, we should have a decision,” Weintz said. “We’re not anticipating any kind of pushback from the governor. This bill got strong stamps of approval in both houses."
In an interview with MeatEater, Weintz said that SB8 represents a unique opportunity for bipartisan cooperation in a political landscape that is plagued by divisiveness.
"In this day and age in Virginia politics, I think the governor is looking for all the bipartisan wins he can get," he said. "This would be a pretty easy slam dunk for him to sign and say, ‘Look: Democrats and Republicans got together and got this done with the help of our conservation organizations and citizens within the state.’”
Weintz said that BHA and other conservation groups were able to point to the potential economic benefits that a repeal of Virginia’s Sunday hunting ban could bring about.
“BHA, as well as other organizations like the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, were really pointing to the economic contributions that Sunday hunting will provide,” he said. “When hunters come into the state, they’re buying gas, they’re buying food, they’re stimulating rural economies in the areas where they hunt. There’s a lot of money that goes into the effort to hunt beyond just buying a tag for whatever species you’re going after. Those dollars are a bit harder to track, but they’re there, and drawing attention to those economic benefits was one of the main focuses we had in working to help this bill pass.”
Another critical component of the bill’s success, he said, was the cautious support it received from the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (VDWR).
“Because of their capacity, being a state agency, they cannot explicitly come out in favor of any particular legislation,” Weintz said. “Their role in the legislative process is to be more of a vehicle for information. But Director Ryan Brown really put emphasis on the fact that license sales will go up, equity and access will go up, and this will increase engagement from the hunting community. It will mean more dollars coming into DWR for conservation and more dollars coming into the rural communities where a lot of these public lands are centered.”
While SB8 benefited from the support of certain legislators and policy makers, proponents like Weintz did have to contend with some opposition in their efforts to shepherd the bill through the Virginia Legislature.
“We had to overcome some key hurdles to get it done,” Weintz said. “Virginia’s kind of a unique beast. There are a lot of traditional legislators here who would say: ‘It’s always been this way in Virginia, and why would we want to change it?,’” Weintz said. “We had to overcome that and we also had to overcome the religious hurdle. Some people believe that because Sunday is the Christian Sabbath, it needs to be a day of rest, and we don’t need to be hunting public lands on that day.”
He also pointed to opposition from alternate user groups who see hunting as a threat to their ability to recreate on public lands on Sundays.
“There’s a big equestrian culture in the state,” he said. “They use public land pretty heavily on Sundays, and we ran into some opposition from legislators who have close ties to that community. I hate to say it, but hikers, mountain bikers, and cyclists, some of those groups were against it as well.”
Opposition aside, Weintz and other members of Virginia’s hunting community are excited about the opportunity to finally abolish a ban on Sunday hunting that can be traced all the way back to colonial times.
“We didn’t let up on the gas. We kept the emails coming and kept connecting constituents with their legislators,” he said. “Going from 2014—when they allowed Sunday hunting without including the public land hunter—to where we are now, was a gradual process. But this was the year when everybody realized how unfair that is, and the stars kind of aligned to make this happen.”
A recent relaxing of Pennsylvania’s Sunday hunting ban has allowed hunters to head afield on three Sundays of their choosing per year, but a new bill seeks to do away with any remnants of the state’s blue laws altogether.
A South Carolina bill that would overturn a statewide ban on public land hunting on Sundays is currently hung up in committee in the House of Representatives. Sunday hunting proponents in the Palmetto State cite religious pushback, heavy opposition from equestrian groups, and an inadequate level of support for their plight from the state’s wildlife agency, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
Other states with some type of Sunday hunting restriction still on the books include Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, and Maryland. North Carolina just overturned their Sunday hunting ban in August 2021.
Weintz is hopeful that the success Virginia’s hunting community is currently enjoying may bleed over into nearby states where Sunday hunting blue laws still exist.
“Hopefully this helps our friends down in South Carolina and those up in Pennsylvania get theirs done,” he said. “We definitely cited the recent expansion of Sunday hunting in some other states in our arguments, so hopefully they can do the same as we move ours across the finish line.”
Feature image via Captured Creative