General Assembly agrees to end ban on Sunday public land hunting

If signed by Youngkin, law would lift long-running prohibition July 1

By: - March 7, 2022 2:11 pm

A white-tailed deer. (NBC12)

After years of debate, both chambers of Virginia’s General Assembly have agreed to get rid of a state law prohibiting hunting on public lands in the commonwealth on Sundays, signaling the days are numbered for a ban that can be traced back to the 17th century. 

“I’m glad to see that all lands will now be available for hunting on Sunday, especially for those who only get weekends to go,” said Del. James Edmunds, R-Halifax, who has been one of the most vocal proponents for eliminating the ban on Sunday hunting on public lands, in a text message after the vote. “It’s the right thing to do for the future of hunting and youth hunter recruitment.” 

On Monday, the House of Delegates passed Senate Bill 8 from Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, removing the state’s last major restriction on Sunday hunting. The legislation had already passed the Senate 29-11 and if signed by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin will go into effect July 1. Youngkin’s spokesperson says he will review the bill.

The earliest versions of Virginia’s ban on Sunday hunting can be traced back to 1643. Over the years, the law became increasingly unpopular as other states scrapped their Sunday hunting prohibitions; today, only a handful of East Coast states continue to restrict the activity.  

Nevertheless, Virginia’s restrictions hung on intact until 2014, when the General Assembly agreed to allow Sunday hunting on private lands. 

Many hunters remained unsatisfied with that compromise, arguing that the continued ban on Sunday hunting on public lands disadvantages less wealthy hunters who lack access to private grounds and that the prohibition is a relic of days when lawmakers sought to protect the Christian Sabbath through wide-ranging “blue laws.” 

Until this year, their efforts bore little fruit. In 2021, the then-Democrat-controlled House of Delegates killed a proposal from Edmunds to strip out the public lands prohibition on the first day of the session. 

This year, Edmunds offered a more modest proposal that would have allowed Sunday hunting on Virginia’s state-maintained wildlife management areas. That legislation died in February after the House Natural Resources Subcommittee split evenly on the issue. 

Petersen’s more expansive legislation eliminating the public lands prohibition entirely proved more successful. Following determined lobbying by hunting groups, his bill cleared the House subcommittee last week after Del. Ken Plum, D-Fairfax, reversed his opposition and broke the lawmakers’ deadlock. 

As the House panel considered Petersen’s proposal, hunters supporting SB 8 leaned heavily on the religious dimension of the original Sunday hunting bans. 

“I would respectfully ask you: In 2022, would you support a ban on fishing on Sundays? A ban on hiking on Sundays?” asked John Culclasure with the Congressional Sportsmen Foundation. “On Sundays, we can buy tobacco, buy alcohol, buy hard liquor, lottery tickets, gamble, go to breweries, see live music, do everything except hunt.” 

Eric Lehmann, speaking for the Virginia Public Land Hunters and Fishermen, a Facebook group with more than 9,000 members, called the existing prohibition “a true religious liberties issue.” 

“It forces largely Christian viewpoints, day of rest beliefs, on other religious and nonreligious public land users,” he said. 

Other support came from the Virginia Board of Wildlife Resources, which in October passed a resolution in support of amendments to state code “granting public landowners the ability to allow hunting on Sundays on their lands in the same manner as that currently afforded to private landowners.” And Ryan Brown, director of the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, told lawmakers that although the department took no specific stance on the legislation, the agency hadn’t seen either negative impacts on wildlife populations or increased conflicts between hunters and non-hunters since Sunday hunting was allowed on private lands.

Despite narrowly squeaking out of House committee on a 12-10 vote, Petersen’s bill cleared the full House with a comfortable 69-28 margin Monday.  

Cyrus Baird, senior director of government affairs for Delta Waterfowl Foundation, praised the decision as “huge” and “historic” for Virginia hunters. 

“This is hopefully the first domino to fall for Sunday hunting bills this year on the East Coast,” he said.  

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]

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