When the 39-year-old lawyer read the ruling online, she said, she was also struck by how much the world had changed since she attended law school in the late 1980s, when there were no references to gay rights in her law books. "I always looked for decisions that impacted my life and I never saw any," Ahlers said. "There was nothing about me in the case law. Nothing positive anyway."
The 4-to-3 decison by the Supreme Judicial Court, she said, changed that.
The ruling also startled Brian Camenker, head of the conservative, Waltham-based Parents Rights Coalition. But to him it was "complete lunacy." As he saw it, the divided court had put its imprimatur on relationships that are a menace to society.
"It's beyond shocking. It's madness," said the longtime Newton resident. "It's four judges basically turning society inside out with no input from anybody else."
As the debate over gay marriages spilled into the western suburbs last week, it was clear that the region, like the rest of the state, was struggling to make sense of the landmark decision. Whether they applauded Tuesday's ruling or deplored it, area residents agreed that it would be some time before they could gauge its long-term implications.
Although the court stopped short of immediately allowing same-sex marriages, it ruled that the centuries-old idea of marriage as being limited to a man and a woman should be updated to define the institution as the exclusive "voluntary union of two persons as spouses." The majority based the decision on the equal protection and due process provisions of the Massachusetts Constitution. It was the first time a state high court had ruled that homosexual couples are constitutionally entitled to marry.
The court gave the Legislature 180 days to modify state law to conform with the decision. But even if lawmakers do nothing, same-sex couples would still be able to marry as early as next May.
Ahlers, the state's regional counsel for Worcester County housing authorities, is one of several lesbians and gays who said they hope to exercise the right to marry as soon as possible. "The day that this is allowed, we're going to go to the Town Hall to get the form you need to get a marriage license," said Ahlers, who has been in a committed relationship with Michelle Blair, a Marlborough lawyer, for 10 years.
Ahlers and Blair, who have a 13-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son, already celebrated their "wedding" on Aug. 2 at the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Framingham. Afterward, they held a reception for 200 friends and relatives at the Stow Acres Country Club.
But because the state does not recognize their marriage, they lack many of the benefits that married heterosexual couples enjoy. Ahlers's health insurance, for example, covers her children but not Blair. Same-sex couples can also be denied hospital visitation rights and don't get the tax benefits of married heterosexual couples.
"We were married because we decided to define ourselves as married, but it didn't change our legal status in the Commonwealth," said Blair, who met Ahlers in 1993 at an event hosted by lesbian lawyers at a Boston piano bar.
Several gays and lesbians said the right to marry was crucial for symbolic reasons as well. Lisa Eisenbud, an early-childhood consultant and founder of the MetroWest chapter of the Freedom to Marry Coalition of Massachusetts, said she and her partner, Iris Godes, have been in a stable, loving relationship for 23 years. They have two daughters, ages 12 and 7, and, she said, a nurturing home in Framingham.
"We're married in every sense," said Eisenbud, whose partner is an associate dean at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester. "Our money is pooled, she's my emotional support, I'm her emotional support. We really are a married couple."
Although radio talk shows last week buzzed with criticism that gay marriage was inconceivable in some religions, several gays and lesbians interviewed said the ruling had nothing to do with religious doctrine. They said the decision redressed longstanding discrimination against homosexuals, likening it to seminal US Supreme Court rulings that struck down segregation.
"People should remove their religious beliefs when they talk about" the issue, said Krystof Krakowiak, a 45-year-old Milford accountant, who had a civil union ceremony with his partner, David Marburger, in Vermont in 2000. "This has to do with civil rights."
Krakowiak said he was offended when Governor Mitt Romney, reiterating his opposition to gay marriage last week, declared that he has "3,000 years of recorded history" on his side.
"He's interjecting all this religious baggage that has no place," Krakowiak said. "It really sounds evil and inhumane and cruel."
The Catholic bishops of Massachusetts, who represent the state's largest religious denomination, see it otherwise. The bishops denounced the decision as "radical" and called on the Legislature to reverse it.
"It is alarming that the Supreme Judicial Court in this ruling has cast aside what has been . . . the very definition of marriage held by peoples for thousands of years," Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley of Boston said after the ruling.
It's impossible to separate marriage from religious belief in most Christian faiths, said the Rev. Frank Silva, of Saint Ann's Parish, a Catholic congregation in Wayland. It's one thing for homosexual couples to have civil unions, he said, "but when you take an institution as old and as sacred as marriage and use that term, then obviously it muddies the waters for us all."
Camenker, of the Parents Rights Coalition, whose group has unsuccessfully tried to get the state to pass a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to one man and one woman, said his organization intends to pressure the Legislature to defy the court ruling.
"As Martin Luther King pointed out in his letter from the Birmingham jail, there are some laws that are so unnatural that you have an obligation to openly defy them," Camenker said. "The concept of stable, healthy gay relationships is largely a manufacturing of the gay propaganda machine."
But two pastors of churches that welcome gays in the western suburbs applauded the high court.
The Rev. Clifford C. Gerber of Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church in Shrewsbury cited gay friends who have been in monogamous relationships for decades.
"I would say they're as stable or unstable, potentially, as heterosexual relationships," said Gerber, who stressed that he was expressing his personal views. "To say that homosexual relationships are inherently unstable when we don't do anything to support them seems to me a really unfair statement."
Jean Southard, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Waltham, was so pleased by the ruling that she intends to lead a prayer of thanksgiving today, and perhaps address the topic in her sermon.
"I see this not just as a legal matter, but as a matter of justice for all God's children," she said.
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at email@example.com.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.