Boston, May 20--Most of them had already spent Sunday night into Monday morning waiting to apply for the first marriage licenses issued to same-sex couples in Massachusetts. Today, they're going to the chapel and they're going to get married.

The chapel is Arlington Street Church, the historic Unitarian Universalist bastion facing Boston Public Garden. The church opened it doors at 9 a.m. this morning to marry 50 couples, at a rate of 20-minutes apiece, so they could have their licenses signed in church.

Just don't call the ceremonies "weddings." Oddly, after all of the debate in both the state's political and religious circles about the power of words like "wedding" and "marriage," the ceremonies taking place here today go by the more staid term "license-signing." The reason, says Arlington Street's senior minister, the Rev. Kim K. Crawford Harvie, is that most of those having their licenses signed today have already been married in the Unitarian church or under Vermont's civil unions--or they are planning larger weddings for later this summer or fall.

This doesn't take away from the excitement, the sense of history and of moment that is visible on every face. Though the same words were recited every 20 minutes, the meaning was felt afresh for the couples who stood up and declared their legal and spiritual commitments to each other.

Most of the couples have been together for years, if not decades. They are here not at a beginning point, naïve youngsters who know they love each other but know little else about what life can bring. The couples here are celebrating lives they have already built together, complete with children, homes, jobs and deaths. Now they are crossing the final frontier into legal recognition.

"We wanted to ritualize that last moment" of the journey into civil marriage, said Crawford Harvie, whose wedding to Kem Morehead was on Valentine's Day 1999 and whose license signing was performed today to applause, tears and piano music. So instead of having open office hours for license signings, couples have the chance to stand up and be married in the church sanctuary.

"Tom and I have paid taxes, paid the bills and mowed the lawn for 22 years," said Mark Jones, who was dressed in a sharp-looking tuxedo with maroon bowtie and cummerbund. "To have that little piece of paper, that makes all the difference," added Tom Dooley, Jones' new husband.

Arlington Street Church itself, built between 1859 and 1861, is a symbol in Boston of the city's history of activism and progressive religion. It was the spiritual home of legendary UU minister William Ellery Channing, and in 1967 was host to a signal draft-card burning demonstration led by Rev. William Sloane Coffin. Though Unitarians are sometimes criticized for emphasizing the political over the spiritual, congregants say that it is the union of these two that makes being a UU meaningful.

It's also why gay marriages are hardly new to Arlington Street. The Unitarian Universalist Association was a pioneer in the gay rights issue, adopting a general resolution to end discrimination against homosexuals and bisexuals in 1970. Arlington Street Church witnessed its first same-sex union in 1973. On Monday, 31 years later, Crawford Harvie performed the first legal marriage of a male couple in a Massachusetts church. The couple had obtained a waiver exempting them from the three-day waiting period.

"I began to tremble," Crawford Harvie said. "I realized I was really trembling before God. I had this tremendous experience of being taken and shaken by those who had come before me," activists who had opposed slavery and later Vietnam, who championed women's suffrage, civil rights, feminism and now gay rights.

Today, the atmosphere in the building is festive. Wedding cupcakes displayed together with peach-colored roses, as well as a dairy- and wheat-free cake greet newly married couples, as do flowers purchased with an anonymous $500 donation. A large rainbow flag hangs in the sanctuary, and every pronouncement of marriage brings applause, sniffles and lots of flashbulbs. At noon, during a lunch break from the ceremonies, a professional wedding planner adorns the sanctuary with bouquets for a larger wedding for two men that is scheduled for 9 p.m.

Amid the celebration, a barely perceptible shadow hangs over the festivities. Despite the absence of protestors opposing gay marriage that was a feature of Monday's ceremonies, everyone at the church seems conscious of what Crawford Harvie calls "our terror that there's only a slim window before there's hell to pay": in her terms, the possibility that the legal rights granted by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court are rescinded.

Fragile or not, the right to stand in a church to be married was powerful for many of the couples. "This is a real sense of legitimacy for me," said Lynn Colangione, who married her partner of 2 ½ years, Lauren Baskin, in one of the first ceremonies of the day. Colangione, who was raised Roman Catholic, said that the couple had previously celebrated a commitment ceremony with 130 of their friends and family. Today's event, though much smaller in scale, had a different impact.

"Not that our commitment in our heart has changed at all, but the recognition is different. Now it's for everybody," she said.

The charged political climate within which these marriages became possible did cause some, like the tuxedo-clad Dooley and Jones, to get married at City Hall rather than in the church. "We chose a civil ceremony to keep it tied with the legality, the state process," said Dooley. But the couple, who lives outside of Boston on the North Shore, came into town to celebrate Crawford Harvie's ceremony, and being there for that was a powerful symbol in itself, he said. "To come here today ties the two beautifully," he said.

There were some slightly unusual moments, typical of wedding-day jitters. One couple, Annie Gauger, 43, and Cynthia MacKenzie, 46, stood in the sanctuary and said their vows without any shoes on. When asked if there was any symbolism in their bare feet, the couple of 14 years looked surprised, apparently just realizing her feet were unclad. "I guess our shoes are in the pew," said Gauger, laughing.

For many, this marriage day is a day like any other. "We're going to go home and let the dog out," said David Wakeley, 59, who married his partner of 5 years, Lewis Stein, in an emotional ceremony. The couple will celebrate later at a dinner with friends. And Crawford Harvie said she laughed when she saw one woman enter into her Palm Pilot, "5:40-get married."

No one seemed to take for granted, however, the weight of the commitment they were making. At Crawford Harvie's ceremony, the clergyperson, Rabbi Howard Berman, recited a traditional Jewish prayer of thanksgiving. Then Crawford Harvie and Morehead recited the same vows they had spoken to each other during their 1999 ceremony.

"My journey's end is in your hands," said Crawford Harvie to her soon-to-be wife. "You are my journey's end."

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