State lawmakers recently passed a bill that would legalize Sunday hunting on public lands in Virginia. The legislation is now on its way to Governor Glenn Youngkin’s desk for his signature.
Senate Bill 8 passed the Virginia Senate in January and advanced to the Virginia House of Delegates, where it passed yesterday on a 69-28 vote.
The passage of SB8 comes eight years after the Virginia General Assembly voted to approve Sunday hunting only on private land. If signed into law by Governor Youngkin, the bill will completely remove the Commonwealth’s long-held Sunday hunting ban from the books by July 2022.
Virginia is one of the few states with antiquated “blue laws” that ban or restrict Sunday hunting. The laws hail from a time when all manner of religious codes, from Sabbath observance to prohibitions on drinking and gambling, were routinely incorporated into state statutes across the country.
Isaac Weintz is a board member of the Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Capital Region Chapter, a chapter made up of members from Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia.
“Now it’s going to go to the governor’s desk, and hopefully in the next 10 days or so, we’ll have a decision,” Weintz said. “We are not anticipating any kind of pushback from the governor. This bill got strong seals of approval in both chambers.”
In an interview with MeatEater, Weintz said SB8 represents a unique opportunity for bipartisan cooperation in a political landscape riddled with divisions.
“Currently in Virginia politics, I think the governor is looking for every bipartisan win he can get,” he said. “It would be very easy for him to sign on and say, ‘Look: Democrats and Republicans came together and pulled this off with the help of our conservation organizations and citizens within the state.'”
Weintz said the BHA and other conservation groups were able to point to the potential economic benefits that repealing Virginia’s Sunday hunting ban could bring.
“The BHA, as well as other organizations like the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, really pointed to the financial contributions that Sunday’s hunt will provide,” he said. “When hunters come to the state, they buy gasoline, they buy food, they stimulate rural economies in the areas where they hunt. A lot of money goes into the effort of hunting beyond just buying a tag for whatever species you’re looking for. Those dollars are a little harder to track, but they are there, and drawing attention to those economic benefits was one of the main focuses we had in working to help get this bill passed.”
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 speak in favor of any particular piece of legislation,” Weintz said. “Its role in the legislative process is to be more of a vehicle for information. But director Ryan Brown really put the emphasis on the fact that license sales will increase, equity and access will increase, and this will increase the participation of the hunting community. It will mean more dollars going into DWR for conservation and more dollars going into the rural communities where a lot of this public land is concentrated.”
While SB8 benefited from the support of certain legislators and policymakers, proponents like Weintz had to deal with some opposition in their efforts to get the bill through the Virginia Legislature.
“We had to overcome some key hurdles to do it,” Weintz said. “Virginia is 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 obstacle. Some people believe that because Sunday is the Christian Sabbath, it should be a day of rest and we don’t need to be hunting on public land on that day.”
He also noted opposition from alternative user groups who see hunting as a threat to their ability to recreate on public lands on Sundays.
“There is a great equestrian culture in the state,” he said. “They use a lot of public land 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 others in Virginia’s hunting community are excited about the opportunity to finally abolish the Sunday hunting ban that dates back to colonial times.
“We don’t let off the gas. We kept up the emails and continue to connect constituents with their legislators,” she said. “Going from 2014, when they allowed Sunday hunting without including the public land hunter, to where we are now, it was a gradual process. But this was the year that everyone realized how unfair that is, and the stars aligned for this to happen.”
Both Pennsylvania and South Carolina are involved in their own efforts to lift similar restrictions.
A recent relaxation of Pennsylvania’s Sunday hunting ban has allowed hunters to go out in the field on three Sundays of their choosing per year, but a new bill seeks to completely eliminate any remnants of the state’s blue laws.
A South Carolina bill that would overturn a state ban on hunting on public lands on Sundays is currently hanging in committee in the House of Representatives. Advocates of Sunday hunting in the Palmetto state cite religious rejection, strong opposition from equestrian groups, and an inadequate level of support for their plight from the state wildlife agency, the Texas Department of Natural Resources. South Carolina.
Other states with some kind of Sunday hunting restriction still on the books include Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, and Maryland. North Carolina just lifted its Sunday hunting ban in August 2021.
Weintz is hopeful that the success the Virginia hunting community is currently enjoying can spread to nearby states where blue Sunday hunting laws still exist.
“Hopefully this will help our friends in South Carolina and our friends in Pennsylvania do their thing,” he said. “We definitely cited the recent expansion of Sunday hunting in a few other states in our arguments, so hopefully they can do the same as we move across the finish line.”
Featured Image via Captured Creative