Vermont senators approved a gay marriage bill with an overwhelming 26 to 4 vote late Monday evening. House Speaker Shap Smith, a proponent of gay marriage, said his chamber will begin work on the bill as early as today.

The Senate voted on the bill after a Senate Judiciary Committee gave it an unanimous approval on Friday. The five member committee listened to a week's worth of testimony before giving its blessing on the legislation.

Big crowds arrived for a Wednesday evening public hearing at the Montpelier Statehouse and the debate at times became heated.

Opponents wore stickers that read “Marriage: A mother and father for every child” while proponents carried the message “From legal rights to equal rights.”

The bill – introduced by Representatives Mark Larson (Democrat) and David Zuckerman (Progressive) in the House and Senator John Campbell in the Senate – grants gay and lesbian couples the right to marry in the first state to offer civil unions for gay couples in 2000.

In arguing for the bill, Campbell was unapologetic to its Republican detractors.

“Whenever the Republicans talk about gay marriage, it's always, 'they' and 'those people have enough rights,' 'those people should be arrested because that lifestyle is criminal.' ... But, they are our policemen. They are our firefighters. They are our teachers. They are our garbage men. They're our children, our brothers, and our sisters.”

Vermont Governor James Douglas opposes gay marriage, saying civil unions suffice, but has not indicated he would veto the bill. Many believe he would let the law take effect without his signature.

Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 2 to 1 in the House, where passage appears likely, but it's uncertain if there are enough votes to override a gubernatorial veto.

If passed, Vermont would become the first state to legislatively extend marriage to gay and lesbian couples. Gay marriage became available in Massachusetts, Connecticut and briefly in California as a result of state Supreme Court decisions.