Day three of a week's worth of hearings on a gay marriage bill in Vermont turned sharply divided as hundreds showed up at the state Capitol eager to testify.

Vermont is setting the stage to become the first state to legislatively extend marriage to gay and lesbian couples.

Gay marriage opponents swarmed the House and Senate Judiciary Committee studying the issue on Monday. About 200 protesters wearing stickers that read “Marriage: A mother and father for every child” spilled out of the standing room only meeting where members had convened. They also carried their message to the airways, releasing an “urgent marriage alert” radio ad in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, three of the four New England states currently considering gay marriage.

The ads were sponsored by the National Organization for Marriage.

“Tell the politicians to stop messing with marriage,” a woman says in the spot. “These are the same politicians that who don't have time to fix our state's economic mess, balance our budget, or restrain out of control spending, but they have time to mess with gay marriage?”

“I want a mommy and a daddy,” a child urges.

The bill – introduced by Representatives Mark Larson (Democrat) and David Zuckerman (Progressive) – grants gay and lesbian couples the right to marry in the first state to offer civil unions for gay couples in 2000. It is backed by legislative leaders, including Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin and House Speaker Shap Smith.

Religious leaders were sharply divided on the issue when they testified yesterday.

Bishop Salvatore Matano, head of the Vermont Roman Catholic Church, has previously said children have a “natural right” to a mother and a father in opposing the bill.

“When our civil government wrongly and unjustly decides that our views of marriage are discriminatory, bigoted rooted in hatred we can expect severe consequences even though exemptions are proposed today, will they be taken away tomorrow. How can one declare a right and then grant an exception to the right? Isn't this a contradiction in terms?” Matano testified.

Other members of the clergy came out in support of the bill.

“We in Vermont are about guaranteeing religious freedom for all,” Rev. Mitchell Hay of the United Methodist Church in Essex Junction said. “And so it seems to me that the state stepping back and saying we're not going to defend for any particular communities of faith what marriage is for them. This is the fair way to make it happen.”

Hay was speaking about the exceptions for religious groups included in the bill.

“I think when people start speaking very confidently that they know what God's will is I tend to want to run in the other direction,” Hay added.

Several people testified about the economic impact of gay marriage, saying it would bankrupt the state. And Vermont Governor James Douglas has chided lawmakers for not focusing on the economic crisis.

But last week, in a report titled The Economic Impact of Extending Marriage to Same-Sex Couples in Vermont the Williams Institute concluded Vermont stood to gain economically from passage of the legislation.

“Extending marriage to same-sex couples will boost Vermont's economy by over $30.6 million over three years, which would generate increases in state and local government tax and fee revenues by $3.3 million and create approximately 700 new jobs,” the study concludes.

It wasn't the economy but something entirely different at the Burlington Free Press that moved its editorial board to support the bill: A change of heart.

“In the 1999 editorial we spoke of the need to bridge the cultural divide to reach a consensus if we were to embark on such a major change to a fundamental social institution,” the board of the Burlington Free Press wrote. “We went so far as to warn that becoming the only state to allow same-sex marriage would make Vermont a target hostile to the idea, solemnly predicting, 'there will be violence.' That prediction of course was pure nonsense.”

“To question the validity of homosexual couples, or to even imply that the relationship is somehow less than that of a heterosexual couple, shows outright prejudice.”

“We repeat these words from the 1999 editorial that did make sense: 'Vermont boasts a long and proud heritage of civil rights and social tolerance' – and we call for adding marriage equality to that heritage.”

Public testimony was taken in an evening session that started at 6PM yesterday. Backers and opponents of gay marriage – and in some instances of being gay – rotated turns at the microphone with two minute addresses. A number of children and young adults who had been raised by gay parents testified in support of the bill.

The Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on the legislation on Friday.