By Donald Gilliland
Religion News Service
HARRISBURG, Pa. (RNS) Two of the most influential forces in conservative lobbying are poised to go head-to-head this fall over an issue that some Pennsylvania lawmakers dread might be one of the most difficult of the session.
The Farm Bureau is the defending champion of one of the last remaining blue laws that forbids hunting of most game species on the Lord's designated day of rest.
Apart from the religious justification for the ban, Farm Bureau members also claim they want one day free of hunters traipsing across their property.
Hikers and bird-watchers have joined the farmers, saying they want one day a week of bullet-free passage through Pennsylvania. And some sportsmen also support the ban, saying the wild critters they stalk need a day of rest as well.
Challenging that position is the Sunday Hunting Coalition, led by the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation with help from a diverse collection of national outdoor interests.
The economic benefit of extending hunting to Sunday would be significant, they say.
In an age when most hunters are limited to the weekend to pursue their sport, the change would effectively double the value -- not the price -- of their license.
Advocates say the change might also prompt hunters who have quit for lack of time to return to the sport, it might draw more hunters from outside the state, and it might spur interest in hunting among young people.
The corresponding increase in hunting activity, they say, would have direct and indirect economic impacts totaling more than 8,000 jobs and $764 million in Pennsylvania.
They also say the underpinnings of the blue law are wormy with age and irrelevance -- one of the last relics of colonial nanny-state dogma.
Almost every other blue law has fallen: Pennsylvanians can shop on Sunday, drink and gamble on Sunday, or buy a motorcycle on Sunday. But you can't hunt (or buy a vehicle).
The challenge is not new, but it has newfound traction this year.
The Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs has come out in support of dropping the ban on Sunday hunting. The state Game Commission for the first time weighed in with a 4-3 vote in favor of the change.
State Rep. John Evans, the Republican chairman of the House Game & Fisheries Committee, was long opposed to the idea but has changed his mind.
"I was presented with the facts," Evans said. "From an economic standpoint, it's a real shot in the arm for the Pennsylvania economy, and when we're coming out of a recession, these types of opportunities need to be seized."
"Folks who argue against it generally are believers in the blue laws established years ago" said Evans, "but -- you know -- we have change as a society."
"If you don't want Sunday hunting on your land," he said, "all you have to do is post your land `No Sunday Hunting.' It's that simple. They really want to put their wishes out there for everybody to abide by."
Until now, the Farm Bureau has made sure any Sunday hunting proposal was basically dead on arrival. With more than 53,000 members across the state, the Farm Bureau is a voice that must be minded by rural legislators.
The Sunday hunting issue is "near and dear to the hearts of our farmers, who overwhelmingly oppose it," said Mark O'Neill, spokesman for the Farm Bureau.
But it's also a top issue of the Sunday Hunting Coalition, and O'Neill claimed there are "interests outside Pennsylvania with money coming in and pushing this. They are targeting Pennsylvania."
That's only partially true, said Jake McGuigan, director of state affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation -- the NRA's partner in the Sunday Hunting Coalition.
"Pennsylvania is a major priority for us this year," he acknowledged, but the group hardly represents "outside interests." Every member of the Sunday Hunting Coalition has significant membership inside Pennsylvania: the NRA alone has some 400,000 Pennsylvanians on its rolls.
The vice chair of Evans' committee, state Rep. Todd Rock, isn't on board with the proposal nor are other Republicans on the committee but says he is taking a "wait-and-see" stance for now.
"I had six local farmers come into my office together," Rock said, "and they said they would post their land" if the measure passed. "They opposed it for religious reasons and others."
(Donald Gilliland writes for The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa.)