Santa Rosa residents Bill Baird and John Kennedy grew up in what seemed like worlds apart. One was raised in suburban Iowa, the other in an old working class town in eastern New York. When the two met 37 years ago in the Colorado mountains at a religious retreat for gay men, they felt immediately connected by their faith.

“We’re both Catholic, so we knew we had the same values,” Baird said.

Both men came out as gay during the early 1970s, before many of their peers, and nearly a decade before the AIDS epidemic gave greater public exposure to the gay community. They were married seven years ago in San Francisco, in the brief window between a state Supreme Court decision and Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriages in California until it was deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The high court’s ruling Friday established a new benchmark for gay rights that Baird and Kennedy said was almost unimaginable nearly four decades ago when they met.

“Justice (Anthony) Kennedy’s statement was very, very moving, when he explained that marriage should be allowed for all people,” Baird said.

At the same time, Baird, 68, and Kennedy, 72, saw the court ruling through the lens of their Catholic faith and viewpoint of millions of Americans who still oppose same-sex marriage.

“It’s important to realize how many people are not happy about the decision,” Baird said, “so we have to find a way to work together to promote marriage equality.”

The retired couple live at Fountaingrove Lodge, a senior community for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people. They attend Resurrection Church, part of the Santa Rosa Diocese overseen by Bishop Robert Vasa, who on Friday denounced the Supreme Court’s ruling as “an egregious error in moral judgment.” The “true definition” of marriage, Vasa said in a written statement, remains “as a union between one man and one woman.”

Baird and Kennedy said the conflict between church doctrine and their marriage has led them to be more outspoken within their parish and in public in their push for equal rights. They are active in a religious group called DignityUSA, which advocates for gay rights within the Catholic Church.

“I know the church is not at my side, but I’ve always felt that I am accepted by God, and that he loves me no matter what,” Kennedy said. “I know some people will say that is crazy and I’m going to burn in hell, but I don’t feel that way.”

The couple said they now intend to advocate for other legal rights for LGBT people, including employment and housing safeguards.

“We’re lucky here in the Bay Area, but in many parts of the country you can be fired for being gay, and landlords may refuse to rent to a lesbian or gay couple,” Baird said.

“There really is a lack of protections for gay people, and while we’re delighted by the ruling, there is still a lot of education to do,” Kennedy said.

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 521-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.