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"Catholic Charities was always at the top of the list," Paula Wisnewski, director of adoption for the Home for Little Wanderers, told the Boston Globe.

With the legalization of gay marriage in the state, discrimination against same-sex couples would be outlawed, too.

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.

Then in November 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ordered gay marriage.

The issue is adoption to same-sex couples." CATHOLIC CHARITIES OF BOSTON made the announcement on March 10: It was getting out of the adoption business. "It's a shame because it is certainly going to mean that fewer children from foster care are going to find permanent homes." Marylou Sudders, president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said simply, "This is a tragedy for kids." How did this tragedy happen? Massachusetts law prohibited "orientation discrimination" over a decade ago.

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

The Becket Fund is widely recognized as one of the best religious liberty law firms and the only one that defends the religious liberty of all faith groups, "from Anglicans to Zoroastrians," as its founder Kevin J.

Cardinal O'Malley asked Governor Mitt Romney for a religious exemption from the ban on orientation discrimination.

Governor Romney reluctantly responded that he lacked legal authority to grant one unilaterally, by executive order.

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.

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