HARRISBURG - One might think the fight to open the fields and forests of Pennsylvania to Sunday hunting would pit guns against religion.
After all, the ban on shooting on the Sabbath has its roots in the blue laws of the 19th century.
Instead, it is shaping up to be a face-off between arguably the two most powerful lobbies in the state: sportsmen and farmers.
The National Rifle Association and other firearms and hunting groups are making a big push this fall for legislation to overturn a 138-year-old ban on Sunday hunting, arguing that they should have the right to hunt seven days a week during hunting seasons.
They cite economic advantages for expanding hunting, pointing to a new study completed by a legislative commission that predicts that adding days will create thousands of new jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue.
But those involved in the state's number-one industry - agriculture - and recreation groups say they simply want a day of peace in the countryside each week.
Farmers say they want to preserve the one day when they don't have to worry about trespassers, while hikers, bikers, and horseback riders want to continue enjoying public land on Sundays without the fear of getting shot.
The legislation - still being debated in a House committee - would not open all Sundays to hunting. Rather, it calls for the Pennsylvania Game Commission - which voted, 4-3, last spring to support the bill - to determine which Sundays, in which hunting seasons, would be open to shooting.
For instance, the commission could designate Sunday hunting only during the peak two-week open deer season beginning at the end of November, or extend it to all Sundays from the start of the Canada goose-hunting seasons in September through the snow goose season that ends in April.
Thirty-nine states allow some form of hunting on Sundays, including New Jersey.
Still, the committee chairman and bill sponsor, Rep. John Evans (R., Erie), said he was not sure a bill will get voted out of committee.
"Right now it's pretty close - we have members who are on the fence," Evans said after a four-hour hearing on his bill Thursday.
Gov. Corbett said he wanted to review any legislation before determining whether or not he would support it.
"I'm not going to weigh in on it right now," Corbett said Thursday. "I want to see the bill."
Friction between the warring factions spilled over during a contentious hearing Thursday before the House Game and Fisheries Committee.
Joel Rotz, the chief lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, testified that proponents have failed to make the case that the interests of all Pennsylvanians are better served by removing the current restrictions.
"We are hearing a growing voice among them who wish to be outdoors on Sunday enjoying a broad range of activities," Rotz said. "They say that one day a week should be preserved for their pleasure without the concern of encountering hunters or hearing gunfire."
One after another, pro-Sunday hunting lawmakers assailed the farm bureau and its position, contending it was not representing the will of its 52,000 members. One, Rep. Mark Gergely (R., Allegheny), mocked the bureau's defense of the rights of "leaf peepers," also known as foliage watchers.
Rotz responded that a majority of the bureau's membership has consistently voted against Sunday hunting.
The committee members hammered representatives of the hiking and horseback-riding communities for not having any proof that outdoors enthusiasts or their animals had been shot at or killed by hunters.
Curt Ashenfelter, executive director of the Keystone Trails Association, said the Sunday prohibition makes the outdoors available for hikers, bird-watchers, mountain bikers, and others without "the perception they are in danger."
But Carl Roe, executive director of the Game Commission, which has seen a decline in hunting licenses in recent years, said that expanded hunting will help generate revenue and give young people more opportunities to get involved in the sport.
"There's no doubt in our mind that including Sunday hunting will certainly have a positive impact on the hunting industry," Roe told the committee.
Hunting is big business in Pennsylvania, which issues more than 900,000 licenses to shoot deer, waterfowl, elk, bear, and other animals each year, among the highest number in the nation.
In 2010, hunting generated roughly $1.7 billion in retail spending, a figure that would grow by 27 percent with Sunday hunting, according to the study prepared for the Legislative Finance and Budget Commission.
But Ashenfelter and others argued that non-hunting brings in revenue to the state and local business, too.
He said the legislative study that found Sunday hunting would help the economy did not consider revenue lost when nonhunters from around the region who used to pursue outdoor activities in Pennsylvania's natural areas decide to stay home or go elsewhere.