AUGUSTA, Maine — It was always clear that Maine’s pioneering right-to-food amendment could spark wide-ranging legal challenges. Few expected the first to be over one of the state’s most high-profile hunting regulations.
It came Wednesday, when a couple sued the state for violating their new right with a ban on Sunday hunting. Dozens of legislative attempts to erode the ban have been thwarted by landowner opposition and division among hunters on how energetically to pursue it.
The lawsuit is only the first test of the constitutional amendment passed by Maine voters in November guaranteeing a right to grow and harvest food for personal consumption. It is vague and will be defined over time by judges pressed to choose which hunting and food regulations are too onerous and which ones are not.
“It’s a great experiment,” said Dmitry Bam, a constitutional law professor at the University of Maine School of Law in Portland.
The challenges came as a passion project of Democratic lobbyist Jared Bornstein, who was pushing the latest failed legislative bid to legalize Sunday hunting. Eroding the ban has been brought up at least 35 times in the last 45 years, according to a rough state estimate.
But the immediate reactions from some of Maine’s loudest voices on hunting were muted while they faced down a major potential change in hunting culture. Much of the debate around the right-to-food amendment was around agriculture. Many expected laws around food safety or new local ordinances to be the subjects of the first legal challenges.
“All I can really say is that it was a surprise to us, and we’re still evaluating the consequences of the lawsuit,” said David Trahan, the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.
The sportsman’s group was part of a strange alliance alongside organic farmers that backed the right-to-food amendment. It was opposed by animal welfare groups that viewed it as a back-door way to enshrine a right to hunt in the Maine Constitution, something that has been unsuccessfully tried by lawmakers here in recent years.
Maine and Massachusetts are the only two states that have the laws, which date back to the 1800s as so-called blue laws that bar certain activities on church days. Bornstein said he came up with the crux of the legal argument himself and fleshed it out after the legislative effort died.
“When Mainers approved the right to food, they may not have been exactly acknowledging Sunday hunting, but they were acknowledging Mainers have the inherent right to harvest the food of their choosing,” he said.
It promises to bring interesting alliances of its own. Andrew Schmidt, a progressive labor attorney in Portland, is leading the case. Bornstein said he is working to attract national partners. None have been finalized, although the National Rifle Association has long backed state constitutional amendments that enshrine the right to hunt and fish.
Sunday hunting has been among the most delicate sporting issues in Maine in recent years. A survey commissioned by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and released earlier this year found deep divides between hunters and landowners.
For example, banning Sunday hunting overall is unpopular, with only 34 percent of Mainers backing it. That increased to 45 percent if landowner permission was required. While more than two-thirds of hunters support it, nearly two-thirds of landowners oppose it. That opposition is fiercest in southern Maine, where 81 percent of landowners indicated disapproval.
Since hunting in Maine largely relies on landowner permission, a court order lifting the Sunday ban could effectively lead to bans on hunting in many areas, said Tom Doak, the executive director of Maine Woodland Owners. He wondered if bag limits or hunting seasons themselves could face challenges later on under the amendment.
“It’s frustrating for landowners who are trying to keep land open for the public and enjoy doing that and having to face this kind of stuff,” he said.