Stakeholders in the fight for gay marriage in Vermont are preparing for the heated debate ahead. That debate begins Monday, when a Senate committee hearing studying the issue gets underway. But the battle in the court of public opinion is already underway in the first state to offer civil unions for gay and lesbian couples in 2000.

It started soon after legislative leaders pledged to make gay marriage a top priority at a press event. Last Thursday, state Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin and House Speaker Shap Smith – both Democrats – announced their support for the gay marriage bill sponsored by Representatives Mark Larson (Democrat) and David Zuckerman (Progressive). The bill has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will hold week-long hearings on the issue beginning Monday. A public hearing scheduled for Wednesday at 6PM at the Statehouse is certain to draw big crowds and lots of fire.

On Tuesday, Governor James Douglas came out swinging against the bill.

“I don't support it,” he told The Times-Argus editorial board. “I really believe the civil union law we have is sufficient. I don't see the need to have ... a divisive debate about this topic.”

At a Monday press conference, mental health experts read a joint statement on the benefits of marriage for the children of gay and lesbian families.

“Research has shown children of same-sex couples are as likely as children of heterosexual parents to flourish,” Dr. Jackie Weinstock, a UVM professor and psychologist, said on behalf of the Vermont chapters of four national mental health organizations. “[S]ame-sex parents are just as likely to provide healthy and supportive environments for children.”

The leader of Vermont's Roman Catholic Church, Bishop Salvatore Matano, disagrees. Matano, who is planning to testify at Wednesday's public hearing, said children have a “natural right” to a mother and father.

Speaking to local media, Matano said: “We are defending what has been the normal pattern of human existence over the ages. And we simply do not believe we have the right to redefine or change what is in the natural order.”

The Catholic Church remains steadfastly opposed to the recognition of gay unions around the world. In Spain, where gay marriage became legal in 2005, Pope Benedict has directed followers to vote out the Socialist Party that passed the law. And last month, the Vatican issued a statement that said they could not support a United Nations resolution that called on all nations to decriminalize being gay because it might encourage the spread of gay marriage.

That did not stop nearly 200 members of Vermont's clergy from signing on to a statement supporting the gay marriage bill.

“Civil unions are a good thing, but are still not equality,” Rev. Linda Maloney, an Episcopal minister from Enosburgh Falls, said.

Maloney and her colleagues, who represent 9 religious denominations, voiced their support for gay marriage at a Wednesday press conference at Burlington City Hall.

“We affirm the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution,” said Rev. Johanna Nichols of the Unitarian Universalist Society. “The state can't require religious groups to bless same gender marriages nor may it favor the convictions of one group over another and deny individuals their fundamental right to civil marriage.”

Gay activists remain hopeful that gay marriage will come to Vermont and New Jersey this year. They had hoped to add New York to that list, but Democratic leaders there have admitted they don't have the votes.

If Vermont approves gay marriage legislatively, it would be the first state to do so. Gay marriage came about in Connecticut, Massachusetts and briefly in California as a result of state Supreme Court rulings.

Beth Robinson, chairwoman of Vermont Freedom To Marry, told gay weekly The Washington Blade that the likelihood of passage this year was “very high.” And while Governor Douglas does not support the bill, he has remained silent on whether he would veto the legislation, leading many to believe he would let the measure become law without his signature.