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"The impact will be severe and pervasive," Picarello says flatly.

"This is going to affect every aspect of church-state relations." Recent years, he predicts, will be looked back on as a time of relative peace between church and state, one where people had the luxury of litigating cases about things like the Ten Commandments in courthouses.

When religious-right leaders prophesy negative consequences from gay marriage, they are often seen as overwrought.

The First Amendment, we are told, will protect religious groups from persecution for their views about marriage. Is the fate of Catholic Charities of Boston an aberration or a sign of things to come?

I PUT THE QUESTION to Anthony Picarello, president and general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

To date, not a single other Massachusetts political leader appears willing to consider even the narrowest religious exemption.

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, which lobbies for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equal rights, issued a thundering denunciation of the Catholic hierarchy: "These bishops are putting an ugly political agenda before the needs of very vulnerable children.

Every one of the nation's leading children's welfare groups agrees that a parent's sexual orientation is irrelevant to his or her ability to raise a child.

As one Becket Fund donor told Picarello ruefully, "At least you know you're not in the buggy whip business." Picarello is a Harvard-trained litigator experienced in religious liberty issues.

But predicting the legal consequences of as big a change as gay marriage is a job for more than one mind.

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