Court columns

Maine High Court Upholds Centuries-Old Sunday Hunting Ban

The court rejected claims that the ban conflicted with a 2021 constitutional amendment guaranteeing a right to food. 


Maine’s Sunday hunting ban is not unconstitutional under the state’s right-to-food amendment, the state supreme court ruled last month.

In 2021, Maine’s citizens adopted by popular vote a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the “natural, inherent and unalienable right to food.” The amendment protects the right to “grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume” food for “nourishment, sustenance, bodily health, and well-being,” with the caveat that individuals may not poach or otherwise violate private property rights in the process. 

Hunting advocates saw in the amendment an opportunity to challenge Maine’s Sunday hunting ban. The ban, dating from 1840, is a vestige of the once-common state and local regulations that reserved Sunday, the “Christian Sabbath,” as a day of rest. In many states, these so-called “blue laws” (the origin of the name is obscure) bar a variety of activities on Sundays such as liquor sales, horse racing, and even motor vehicle sales. While some states still impose restrictions on hunting on Sunday — for example, limiting the hours or the type of game that can be hunted — only Maine and Massachusetts completely bar Sunday hunting. Maine’s Sunday hunting ban states simply that a “person many not . . . hunt wild animals or wild birds on Sunday.”

Legislative efforts to repeal Maine’s Sunday hunting ban have repeatedly fallen short, opposed by outdoor enthusiasts who want to reserve one day a week when they can enjoy Maine’s abundant nature in other ways, perhaps birdwatching or snowmobiling, without worrying about errant gunshots. 

In 2022, Maine hunters Virginia and Joel Parker, with the financial backing of several national groups, filed a lawsuit arguing the amendment superseded the Sunday hunting ban. The Parkers claimed that they depended on hunting to supplement food for themselves and their five children. Because of work and school commitments, they said, Sunday was the only day when family members were able to hunt together. Maine’s prohibition on Sunday hunting, they claimed, unconstitutionally infringed on their right to food.

The state’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife opposed the suit, arguing that there was no conflict between the amendment and the Sunday ban. The lower court dismissed the complaint with prejudice in a one-page order, saying only that the Parkers had failed to state a claim on which relief could be granted. On appeal, the Maine Supreme Court concluded that the plaintiffs did state a claim, but ultimately ruled against them on the merits of their constitutional argument.

The high court began by noting that the Sunday hunting ban enjoyed a “presumption of constitutionality,” particularly given that it had been on the books for more than 180 years. The court then turned to the specific language of the right-to-food amendment.

Relying on several contemporary dictionary definitions, as well as statutory sources and its own prior case law, the court agreed with the Parkers’ argument that the term “harvest” included hunting. And the court did not dispute that the Parker family relied on hunting for food rather than viewing it as a recreational activity. But, the court said, the state’s constitutional amendment does not provide an absolute right to food. Rather, it specifically carves out exceptions that limit the right. In particular, the amendment expressly bars “poaching . . .. in the harvesting . . . of food.” 

Turning again to contemporary dictionaries, the court explained that poaching was defined as “to take game or fish illegally” or “by illegal methods.” Applying this definition to the amendment, the court determined that “the right to hunt . . . does not extend to situations in which hunting is illegal.” Since the ban makes hunting on Sunday illegal, the court reasoned, then the right-to-food amendment incorporates that prohibition and does not disturb the existing ban. In effect, the poaching exception leaves to the legislature the determination of what hunting is illegal — and for now, the Sunday ban reflects the legislature’s determination. 

This decision marks the high court’s first opportunity to interpret the amendment, and it adopted a cautious approach, applying a narrowing construction to the terms of the amendment. A broader construction might have upended not only the Sunday hunting ban but other regulatory measures that have the incidental effect of limiting food access, such as safety regulations. At least one other case has been filed under the amendment, challenging licensing requirements imposed on a home kitchen food business. For now, that case, which is being litigated by the national Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, remains in the trial court.

Maine is so far the only state to adopt such a provision. The case has been closely watched by right-to-food advocates in several states, including Washington and West Virginia. For now, the court’s narrow ruling preserves the Sunday hunting ban but leaves other questions about the scope of the constitutional right to food unanswered.

Martha F. Davis is a distinguished professor at Northeastern University School of Law.





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