BOSTON (AP) – The state’s four Catholic bishops have issued a strongly-worded letter calling the recent court decision on gay marriage a “national tragedy” that could “erode even further the institution of marriage.”

In the letter, to be read at Mass across Massachusetts this weekend, the bishops say a mid-May deadline set by the state’s highest court is a “sure formula for chaos” because it doesn’t give lawmakers and citizens enough time to understand the ruling.

In its 4-to-3 decision, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled it unconstitutional to bar gay couples from marriage and gave the Legislature 180 days to rewrite the state’s marriage laws to provide benefits for gay couples.

The bishops say that is not enough time and urged parishioners “to contact the governor and their state legislators to urge them to find a way to give our citizens more time to deal with this issue.”

The bishops – including Boston Archbishop Sean P. O’Malley – also say the court ruling turns those who oppose gay marriage into villains.

“The misguided decision has also served to promote divisions in society by villianizing as bigotry the legitimate defense of thousands of years of tradition,” the bishops wrote. “Marriage is a gift of God … it is not just one life-style among many.”

A copy of the letter was published in the archdiocese newspaper, The Pilot.

David Wilson, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said the bishops are confusing civil marriage and religious marriage. The court ruling will not require any religion to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.

“From the beginning we have made it very clear that we are looking for civil marriage,” said Wilson, 59, who has been together with his partner, Robert Compton, 54, for seven years. “It’s unfortunate the bishops have taken this stance because it continues to blur the line between civil marriage and religious marriage.”

It’s unclear what steps elected officials could take to try to extend the court-ordered deadline.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Mitt Romney, who supports amending the state constitution to define marriage as a union between one a man and a woman, declined comment on Saturday. The earliest such an amendment could go to voters is November, 2006.

Rep. Philip Travis, one of the lead supporters of the proposed amendment, said the legislature’s hands might be tied in the short run.

“Unless the court re-enters the case, we can’t change the time frame. That’s the court’s prerogative,” said Travis, D-Rehoboth.

In the letter, the bishop’s repeated their support of the proposed constitutional amendment.

Julie Goodridge, 46, and Hillary Goodridge, 47, of Boston were the lead plaintiffs in the case.

Julie Goodridge said she is looking forward to getting married as soon as possible. The ruling has nothing to do with religion, she said.

“We’ve been together for 16 1/2 years, 180 days for us feels like a long time,” she said. “It’s incredibly sad that people feel the need to restrict other people’s rights and freedoms.”

In addition to O’Malley, the letter was signed by Bishop Thomas Dupre of the Springfield Diocese, Worcester Bishop Daniel P. Reilly and Fall River Bishop George Coleman.

Gary Buseck, executive director of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, said he was disappointed in the language of the letter.

“I don’t think the court villianizes anyone. The Roman Catholic Church is being very clever to try to cast themselves as the victim here,” Buseck said. “I happen to be Roman Catholic myself and these kinds of things continue to amaze me.”

AP-ES-11-29-03 1638EST

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