TODAY IS Pennsylvania's only unofficial holiday - the opening of deer season.

This year, it arrives amid a clash between two components of state culture: religious roots and hunting tradition.

Founded on religious freedoms, our state still tops the national average in weekly churchgoers; and it has 950,000 licensed hunters, second only to Texas.

Not suggesting that God and guns don't mix. But they're in the mix in a statewide battle in which you'd think guns hold an edge.

For to say guns and hunting are a big deal here is shooting well below the mark.

Any lawmaker or lobbyist who ever sought even modest gun control can attest to the power the NRA and sportsmen's clubs hold over the Legislature.

And deer hunting is the crown jewel of the game game.

Each year, 300,000 deer are "harvested" during weeks for archery, rifle and muzzle-loaders, the latter usually older rifles loaded through, well, muzzles.

Today is the start of rifle season, a two-week period in which 200,000 deer are killed. The rest (77,000 archery; 22,000 muzzle-loaders) are taken during other defined weeks, September through December.

State Game Commission spokesman Jerry Feaser says "roughly 60 per cent of the deer harvest will be taken" today.

So seems a good day to review a fight over the state's 1873 ban (Ulysses Grant was president) against hunting on Sunday.

I was shocked to learn of a hunting ban of any kind.

Heck, public schools in rural counties close for opening day of deer season. And even the ban has exemptions - for fox and coyotes - in case hunters get itchy fingers on the Lord's Day.

Still, Pennsylvania banning hunting on any day during deer season doesn't sound like the state I know and love.

So back in June, the Game Commission adopted a resolution lifting the ban and giving itself authority over Sunday hunting.

It cited economics and tradition. It noted declines in licenses (in the 1980s, we had 1.3 million), said hunters are going to neighbor states and said ending the ban means $18 million in new taxes, 5,300 new jobs and $629 million in new spending for lodging, food, gas and "other," presumably ammo.

But resolutions don't change laws, so Rep. John Evans, R-Erie, chairman of the House Game and Fisheries Committee, is pushing his bill to do so.

He points to a more recent fiscal study by the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee that claims Sunday hunting means $57 million in new taxes, 7,400 jobs and $804 million in new spending. "The best reason to do it is the economic impact for Pennsylvania," Evans says.

It's not a partisan issue. Rep. Kevin Murphy, D-Scranton, calls it "a jobs bill." He likens its draw to legalizing casino gambling: get out-of-state hunters (gamblers) here; keep our hunters (gamblers) home.

But the largest rural lobbyist, the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, is dead against it.

The 61-year-old group, representing 53,000 farm and rural families, argues for Sunday "peace and quiet" and says hunting restricts horseback-riders, hikers, birdwatchers, etc.

The Farm Bureau's Joel Rotz questions significant economic impact, noting that hunters won't buy "Sunday guns" or "Sunday trucks." He adds that the ban springs from religious beliefs, and asks: "Hunters have six days, why can't we have one?"

Evans' committee meets Dec. 14 with an agenda "to be announced." He and Murphy tell me of compromise efforts to allow hunting some Sundays on some lands, maybe state game lands.

But Rotz says: "No. We don't have any compromise position." And Evans admits: "A lot of our members are very afraid of the Farm Bureau."

So, sounds like Sundays won't be freshly killed venison days any time soon. 'Course, there's always a nice fox stew - or a low-cal coyote burger.

Happy hunting.