For decades, Mainers have debated the State’s more-than-a-century-old prohibition against hunting on Sundays. This year, however, one family has chosen to take the battle to the courtroom. Virginia and Joel Parker of Kennebec County have filed a lawsuit against the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IFW), arguing that the Sunday hunting ban violates the State’s recently-passed, first-of-its-kind, Right to Food Amendment. The Maine Attorney General’s Office, on the behalf of the IFW, has requested that the suit be dismissed.
Sunday Hunting Ban
The Maine IFW website states that “Sunday hunting is illegal in Maine.” It then goes on to define the verb “to hunt” as:
“to pursue, catch, take, kill or harvest wild birds and wild animals (wild by nature, whether or not bred or reared in captivity), including any physical part of that species of mammal or bird.”
Maine State Law delineates it a Class E crime to violate the Title 12 prohibition on hunting “wild animals or wild birds” on a Sunday.
The Right to Food Amendment
As passed by the Maine House and Senate, and approved by 61% of Maine voters in November 2021, the Right to Food Amendment as incorporated into the Maine State Constitution reads:
“All individuals have a natural, inherent and unalienable right to food, including the 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.”
Virginia and Joel Parker have sued the Maine IFW on the grounds that the State’s Sunday hunting ban has inhibited their family’s ability to obtain food by hunting. Between Mr. Parker’s work schedule and their five children’s school obligations, there is only one day a week – Saturday – that the Parker family is able to hunt together. This restricts their ability to travel to remote locations where effective hunting is more feasible.
Frustration with this situation, in light of the Right to Food Amendment’s guarantees, spurred Mrs. Parker to reach out to the IFW and inquire about the possibility of obtaining Sunday hunting permits for her husband and herself. In response, she was told that doing so would not be possible “given the current law.” As a result of this lawsuit, the Parkers are “seek[ing] a declaration from this Court that Maine’s Sunday hunting ban…is unconstitutional when applied to those individuals who are hunting as a means of harvesting food for their families.”
Defining the Term “Harvest”
Although the Parkers have essentially taken for granted in their filing that the term “harvesting,” as used in the Right to Food Amendment, should be understood to encompass hunting, the Maine Attorney General disagrees. Drawing heavily upon the legislative history of the Right to Food Amendment, the State makes the case that “harvesting” and “hunting” are distinct from each other as far as the Right to Food Amendment is concerned.
The Right to Food Amendment was first introduced on the floor of the Maine State Legislature in 2015 and was rejected twice before eventually passing both chambers in July of 2021. Although the two original iterations of the Amendment explicitly referred to “hunting” as a protected activity, the term does not appear anywhere in the final version. The Attorney General also quotes testimony provided in Committee from the representative who initially proposed the Amendment stating that the Amendment would “not invalidate any hunting or fishing laws or regulations currently on the books, and will not keep the requisite departments from enforcing those same regulations.” The State argues, on the foundation of this evidence, that in passing this Amendment, the legislature did not intend to include hunting as a protected means of obtaining foo, nor to cause the Sunday hunting ban to be repealed.
An “Abuse” of “Natural Resources”
Under the Right to Food Amendment, activities that constitute “abuses of…natural resources” are not afforded constitutional protection. In their filing, the Parkers’ anticipated encountering arguments that hunting on Sunday could potentially be considered an “abuse” of Maine’s “natural resources” and provided evidence to the contrary.
They not only assert that the Sunday hunting ban has no “tangible benefit to landowners” nor any positive impact on “public safety,” but they also quote testimony provided to the Legislature by the director of the IFW’s Bureau of Resource Management that the conversation surrounding the ban is “a social issue, not a biological discussion.”
The Parkers also underscore the religious origins of the Sunday hunting ban, explaining that it has roots in the “Old Sunday Law,” which “restricted most activities…from taking place on Sundays for religious reasons.” They point out that many other aspects of the “Old Sunday Law” have been “chipped away,” so much that by 2015, “even alcohol could be sold on Sunday mornings.”
Another type of activity not protected by the Right to Food Amendment is poaching, which is understood to mean the taking of “fish or game” illegally. Since Maine’s wildlife is considered to be “owned collectively by the people of Maine,” hunting “outside the permissible regulations enacted by the people through their Legislature” would legally be considered poaching. Since hunting on Sunday is currently forbidden by Maine State Law, the Attorney General argues that it ought to be considered poaching, and thereby be stripped of any constitutional protection.
As of now, it still remains to be seen whether the Superior Court will strike down the Sunday hunting ban once and for all, or if the question will ultimately be returned to the hands of the Legislature. Regardless of the outcome, this lawsuit has directed a new wave of public attention toward an issue that has been debated for decades.