Virginia lawmakers preserve ban on Sunday hunting

A Virginia House panel has shot down a plan to lift the state's ban on Sunday hunting, ending for now a passionate debate that pitted hunting groups against clergy and challenged a longstanding -- albeit unusual -- Virginia tradition.

Virginia is one of roughly a half-dozen states that still restrict Sunday hunting. The ban has been challenged in past sessions but seemed to have momentum going for it after the Virginia Board of Game and Inland Fisheries last summer came out in favor of allowing hunting on the biblical day of rest.

The state Senate passed the bill by a wide margin last month, as supporters decried the ban as unfair and hailed the proposal as a way to invigorate hunting in Virginia.

But a House subcommittee on Wednesday tabled the proposal, effectively sidelining it for the session. For now, churchgoers, hikers and emboldened animals will have Sundays to themselves without hunters disturbing the peace.

"Even the animals deserve a day of rest," said Rev. Eddy Aliff, director of the Virginia Assembly of Independent Baptists.

Supporters and opponents of holy-day hunting came armed with a litany of arguments.

From the church perspective, Aliff said congregations support the ban because they don't want services and Sundays in general interrupted by the sound of gunfire.

"You shoot a gun, the sound doesn't just go a little ways," he said.

Aliff said hikers, horse riders, farmers and others also deserve some "peace and quiet" -- and safety -- on Sundays. Plenty of other groups sided with Aliff's organization, from the Virginia Farm Bureau to the Humane Society, for that reason.

But the state Board of Game described the ban as an antiquated vestige of colonial "blue laws," and argued that lifting it would have "no impact on wildlife populations."

The board, along with gun-rights groups, said taking Sunday off the table effectively limited hunting to one day -- Saturday -- since many hunters work the other five days.

"People are working longer hours. Saturdays are usually taken up with children's sporting events and other activities. ... People find it hard to find time to hunt," said National Rifle Association spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. "Not being able to hunt on Sunday basically takes one day off the plate completely. That's totally negating one whole day for people to enjoy their pastime."

The NRA, as well as the National Shooting Sports Foundation, argued that permitting Sunday hunting would give a jolt to the economy. They said state hunting license sales have fallen from 500,000 in the 1970s to 300,000 now.

"It's a way for the state to increase revenue," Arulanandam said. "There'll be more people buying licenses, there'll be people buying -- whether it's ammunition, whether it's firearms."

Arulanandam dismissed the claim that allowing Sunday hunting would disrupt religious services.

"The way that argument is framed is that hunting regularly happens outside churches, and that's inaccurate," he said, adding that the NRA would continue to fight for the repeal.

The bill, sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Ralph Northam, would have allowed hunting on state waters and private property only -- provided the landowner grants permission.

The bill would have prohibited any Sunday hunting within 250 yards of a place of worship. The House panel also turned away a last-minute attempt to narrow the bill down further and limit the hunting to military bases.

While the Sunday hunting bill is dead for now, the state continues to allow hunters to let their dogs chase bears for training purposes. The state carefully restricts the hours and months for "chase season," but does permit Sunday chases during that period.