As Massachusetts prepares to begin marrying same-sex couples Monday, opponents are viewing legalization of gay marriage as a setback on the scale of the US Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, and they see a similar long fight ahead in their efforts to overturn the court decision that is leading to a new social era.
As many opponents of gay marriage see it, same-sex unions will make homosexuality more acceptable and fracture family values. On a practical, political level, the reality of gay marriage will make the opponents' battle for a state constitutional amendment to ban it more difficult than ever.
''I don't know whether this ranks as high as the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision," said Ronald A. Crews, former president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, who has helped lead the fight against gay marriage here for several years and who also strongly opposes abortion. "If it's not equal to, then it is second only to that."
For months, opponents have fought to prevent the start of court-authorized gay marriages on May 17. They have pleaded with legislators, yelled themselves hoarse in protest, joined letter-writing campaigns, and prayed for a late reversal. Several legal efforts to stay the SJC ruling have failed.
But those who led the battle against gay marriage will not lead protests at city and town halls on Monday, and they plan to avoid ugly collisions with couples that might be broadcast worldwide. Instead, opponents will hold a rally at Faneuil Hall, and gird for other battles in Congress and in other states.
"Just like after Roe v. Wade, we still carry on," said Representative Philip Travis, the Rehoboth Democrat who sponsored a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. "We don't fight the law. The law is the law. We exercise all the avenues available to us, and we've certainly done that as best as we could as a group. As the 17th rolls around, the 17th as planned will go forward, with no insurrection or disturbance from me individually whatsoever."
After Monday, everything changes, gay marriage opponents say.
"It is a day of mourning, because we are losing something very precious and practical and very needed in society," said Glenn Stanton, a senior analyst at Focus on the Family, the Colorado-based organization that sent money and volunteers to the fight in Massachusetts. His group is among several urging passage of a federal constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage.
"My world changes in the fact that the marriage license I hold with my wife will no longer mean what it meant on May 16," said Crews, who stepped down from the Massachusetts Family Institute this week to run for Congress. "It is not going to impact my relationship with my wife of almost 34 years, but the fact [is] that the word marriage has now been radically redefined by judicial fiat," he said. ''If I dwell on that I can get really despondent, but I choose not to dwell on that."
Political novices who fought gay marriage are also disappointed, Crews said. He has been visiting churches, trying to buck up congregations who see upcoming gay marriages as a defeat. He has told those people to take refuge in their faith, to trust that "we serve a sovereign God, and we don't yield to despair."
''In this case, it's not what we had hoped, but we also believe God is able even at the last minute to intervene," Crews said.
Tracy Egan, an Andover graphic designer, had never been involved in politics before. But she said the SJC decision outraged her and disrupted her "whole belief system," so she began writing letters to her local paper decrying it and offered her help to the Coalition for Marriage, which led the charge on the gay marriage ban.
May 17, she said, will be "a slap in the face."
"It is a setback, definitely, a setback for society," said Egan, 47.
She has grown increasingly disappointed as attempts to stay the decision and to remove the judges that made it have failed. She is angry and worries that the people who feel the way she does are too exhausted to battle on.
"I feel like nobody wants to fight, and the only people who are fighting are the gays," Egan said. "A lot of people in general would rather leave it up to the legislators . . . but they're not handling it properly because there is so much pressure on them from [the] other side. I think a lot of people feel, if they do speak out, they are discriminating, and that's when people shut their mouths."
Crews said he has urged those people to turn their energy toward working to change the face of the Massachusetts Legislature, to support lawmakers who voted for an amendment to bay gay marriage, and to replace those who did not.
But he and other activists concede that pushing forward an amendment will be more difficult once those marriages become a reality. If an amendment makes it to the ballot in 2006, as its supporters hope, gay and lesbian couples will have been marrying for more than two years, and the public is less likely to vote to undo those marriages, members of both sides of the issue argue.
And staunch opponents of gay marriage also oppose the provision in the amendment that would also establish civil unions. After the November elections, opponents will likely focus their efforts on a citizen petition that would impose a simple ban on gay marriage and, if it gets through the Legislature, would be on the ballot in 2008.
Still, opponents are confident that the tide will eventually turn back.
Crews said he is confident that, with recent moves to ban certain types of abortion and to compel parental consent for young women seeking abortions, the nation is moving away from Roe V. Wade, and that in the same way, it will eventually leave the Goodridge decision behind.
''There will be an awakening in this country that says, enough is enough," Crews said. "That may take some decades, but we didn't get into this situation overnight, and we're not going to get out of it overnight."
Travis hints at a more cataclysmic reversal.
"You can call it marriage, but in the natural world, in the Christian world, marriage is the union of one man and one woman," Travis said. "I wish them well, but it's a collision course with nature, and when you challenge nature, nature snaps back at you. . . . Nature will always win out."