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Moving the fence around marriage: the conscience of a Catholic senator

State Sen. Debbie Regala's vote in support of marriage for gay couples fit with her record as an elected official. But her decision to vote according to personal convictions came at a cost.
Sen. Debbie Regala

Sen. Debbie Regala University of Puget Sound/Ross Mulhausen

State Sen. Debbie Regala

State Sen. Debbie Regala

For state Sen. Debbie Regala of Tacoma, only the venue has changed. Crossing the parking lot shared by St. Leo Church and the Tahoma Family Center, a group of nonprofits housed in the former parish school, we step into the simple sanctuary. Dark beams anchoring the low-slung ceiling soar overhead; the nave, flowing wide rather than long, is framed by pews, a modest organ, and slim panels of stained glass. At its entrance, an astonishingly large stone-lined baptismal pool beckons as water does; one wonders how parishioners keep children from splashing in it.

St. Leo represents a spiritual home for many people of diverse views and backgrounds, and Regala, a devout Catholic, now counts herself among that number. Her decision to join this parish in the heart of Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood and leave her former church — a beloved faith community she first joined over 40 years ago — wasn’t easily reached, yet it’s a change Regala has not only come to accept, but embraces.

What set this departure in motion was a decision related to her work rather than her faith: Regala’s vote on Feb.13  in favor of Senate Bill 6239, legislation that will extend the right of marriage to same-sex couples if Referendum 74 is passed this fall.

Shortly after that vote, and to her surprise, Regala received a flurry of emails from fellow parishioners — friends, acquaintances, and lesser-known church members — expressing criticism of her position on this issue. Well-versed in the process of responding to constituents’ feedback, both positive and negative, after almost two decades of experience as an elected official, Regala felt that these messages had entered, literally, a sacred place.

Comments ranged from general disapproval to disappointment to outrage; according to Regala, one parishioner questioned her right to partake in the Eucharist while another scolded her for the years she had spent counseling engaged couples prior to their wedding ceremonies.

Shaken by the intensity of these parishioners’ reactions, and uncertain of how her presence would be received the next time she attended Mass, Regala consulted with people she trusted inside and outside her parish; ultimately, these conversations led her and her husband, Leo, to the decision that it was time to move on. Regala’s belief that LGBT couples should be granted equal civil rights under the law, as a matter of conscience shaped by her life experiences, her understanding of democratic values, and her adherence to Christian teaching, wasn’t up for debate. If such a perspective was unwelcome within her faith community, then it was clear to Regala that, by association, she was unwelcome too.

During our first meeting, held in her living room overlooking the University of Puget Sound, her alma mater, Regala made her views on the subject abundantly clear: “Referendum 74 is not about the Catholic definition of sacramental marriage. It’s a civil rights issue and a legal issue. All couples should have the civil right and the privilege to make the same public statement of their love and commitment to each other. And one of my disappointments is that the Catholic Church chose to insert itself into this battle.” In her official statement of support explaining the reasons behind her vote, she wrote that “what constitutes or has constituted marriage has evolved and changed many times over the centuries,” citing the days when girls were married off to much older men in exchange for dowries, and reiterated that religious bodies would retain the right to perform only those wedding ceremonies that align with their beliefs.

Her face clouding, she mused, “Just think what it must feel like, to be a member of one of these families.” It’s a conversation she can personally relate to, growing up with a gay brother and a lesbian sister (both now deceased). She credits innumerable conversations with constituents, colleagues, family, and friends on the subject of gay rights — whether sparked around the dinner table or on the Senate floor — as the inspiration behind her desire to gain a comprehensive understanding of the issue, as well as revisit aspects of her own past.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Sep 7, 8:07 a.m. Inappropriate

The remarkable thing about this piece is that it was written in the first place. Why should it be news when a Washington State legislator serves the interests of the people of Washington State and does NOT take marching orders from Salt Lake City or Rome?

Sadly, it is.

Goforride

Posted Fri, Sep 7, 10:21 a.m. Inappropriate

As a long-time resident of Tacoma and the 27th Legislative District, as a supporter of Referendum 74, as an avowed agnostic albeit with close friends and respected colleagues at St. Leo, as an affirmative constituent of Sen. Regala -- I applaud Ms. Gunter and Crosscut for this exceptionally perceptive report.

The notably, sometimes defiantly progressive politics of the 27th District and the uniquely inclusive theology at St. Leo are among the factors that make me proud Tacoma is my adopted home.

Meanwhile the publication of Ms. Gunter's piece by Crosscut -- its text the rare blend of disclosure and sensitivity I associate with the old, pre-Murdoch Village Voice -- tells us real journalism yet survives.

Posted Fri, Sep 7, 3:53 p.m. Inappropriate

Sen. Regala, thank you for honoring the convicitons of your heart...and Julie, thank your for an excellent piece. As a Catholic nun and clinical psychologist, I share your belief: Honoring the civil rights of our gay brothers and sisters is part of the Great Commandment, sort of a "no-brainer" for me. It means treating everyone with respect, and acknowledging that none of us, either as individuals or religious institutions, have the right to curtail the right of others to fall in love, marry and/or and make a lifetime commitment to one another. So much misinformation about sexuality, psychology and the interpretation of the Hebrew and Greek words in scripture continues to foster ignorance and prejudice. Thank you for standing up for justice.

franf

Posted Fri, Sep 7, 4:35 p.m. Inappropriate

Here is a great quote that supports your vision, Senator Regala:

"Enlarge the site of your tent," Isaiah tells the exiles,and let the curtain of your house be stretched out (Isa. 54:2) In this case, writes Fr.John Heagle,the prophet invites each of us "to enlarge...our ways of thinking, our manner of approaching other people. Our religious institutions are similarly challenged to "stretch out" their perspectives to include other points of view, different paths to truth, distinct ways of loving and being loved". PP 26, Justice Rising by Fr. John Heagle, formerly of Seattle.

franf

Posted Sat, Sep 8, 9:43 a.m. Inappropriate

This is the sort of story Crosscut does well. A conservative confesses the error of her ways and inspires mean-spirited comments from other anonymous conservatives. An endorsement and and object lesson. It obviously makes people feel good.

kieth

Posted Sat, Sep 8, 11:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Thank you for this excellent article, which inspired me to subscribe to Crosscut. Senator Regala's journey as a Catholic touched me personally, as our family has changed parishes for similar reasons. Thanks to the current crop of American bishops, too many people automatically associate Catholic with conservative. In fact, take a look at the Catholics leading the progressive charge across our nation, including Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and Kathleen Sebelius, as well as the tens of thousands of American Catholic nuns who have spent their lives in the trenches with the disenfranchised.

Posted Sat, Sep 8, 4 p.m. Inappropriate

At the risk of sounding churlish, I have to challenge the Senator's decision to leave. “That’s why He made us different colors,” and homophobia, are opinions that flourish in fields fenced off from the wider world. The solution is not switching fields. The root cause is the mono culture of ideas created when those with alternative views leave or are driven out. So, understandable (who wants to hang out with jerks?), and brave ("I hope my new family likes me!"). But not a solution.

Great story.

wpg

Posted Sat, Sep 8, 6:49 p.m. Inappropriate

So those of us seeking progressive solutions to our nation's problems should join the Republican Party in order to diversify that field? How much more difficult to stay in a faith based community, where we go to seek deeper communion with God and our neighbors, yet are met instead with hostility and intolerance. Time to move on!

Posted Sat, Sep 8, 10:53 p.m. Inappropriate

We are grateful for an honest, ethical and thoughtful, and yes, spiritually open and enlightened, elected official.

The article is a precious gift - even greater for me is the moving-the-fence story within the story. That is the magic of love and doing the right thing. A treasure for me to model myself after. Thank you.

Posted Mon, Sep 10, 2:10 p.m. Inappropriate

SNIP "Regala’s belief that LGBT couples should be granted equal civil rights under the law, as a matter of conscience shaped by her life experiences, her understanding of democratic values, and her adherence to Christian teaching, weren’t up for debate."

Was that meant to be ironic or absurd? So, her own things ("belief" and "understanding" etc.) "weren't up for debate", but those of the Church that she seeks without coercion to identify herself with, yet at the same time alter, ARE open for debate.

Self-righteous and self-assuring people see that as normal -- in logic and as an exercise of political power? The Senator, the author and others believe the idea that things are what she defines them to be or how she wants them is how the world really works?

You worry about the Bible, the Pope or other elements of organized religion as a threat to your freedom, yet organized government, with a monopoly on coercion, is ok? The Senator and others can define what's right and wrong in her own way and mandate it as a new law over all, yet at the same time, cannot be intellectually or morally serious enough to take responsibility for it as such?

Instead, the writer and she still talk of her belief, conscience, exprience, blah, blah, its all about her. Yet, at the same time, she is "adherent to Christian teaching."

At least be honest -- if only that. Such baby boomer bluster is just childish narcissism, and it fails the intellectual and moral basics. Its time to grow up, and not destroy everything you inherited for the rest of us.

Posted Mon, Sep 10, 8:22 p.m. Inappropriate

There is a tremendous amount of sympathy for gays who want to recognize their relationship as if it is marriage. At the risk of being accused of bigotry, I beg to differ. With or without love and marriage, sexual relations between a man and a woman potentially create another human being. There is not the same potency for man-man sexual relations nor for female-female relations. There is no biological consequence to their sexual union. None of us can change that. We can grant equal rights before the law, but we ought not change the definition of marriage as if the biology is of no import. The fact that the State makes it easy for this bond to be broken, that many heterosexuals have ceased to consider the power to make another human being anything special, that fathers and mothers have to be chased after to support the children they have so casually created, is proof that the State has abdicated any power but that of granting civil unions whether hetero-, homo-, or poly-sexual.
The Catholic Church, other faiths, and all previous cultures have long held sacred the bonding of men, women and their children. Those who work hard to support the union of a man and a woman and any people resulting from that union should be able to use the universally understood term "marriage" to continue to hold sacred the biological potential and responsibility for creating another human being.
HonoringCreation

MarySiff

Posted Wed, Sep 12, 12:43 p.m. Inappropriate

MarySiff, marriage in this country is a civil contract that may also be solemnized by the church of one’s choosing. I realize that the Catholic Church views child-bearing as an integral part of marriage, but most people in this country do not. The U.S. Supreme Court decided many years ago that not even physical proximity was necessary for marriage: the justices ruled that a prisoner serving a life sentence could marry a woman on the outside.

The secular idea of marriage is much broader and more inclusive than that of the Catholic Church. Other faith groups, such as Unitarians and Congregationalists, also recognize that marriage may not necessarily include children. If our state’s new law legalizing same-sex marriages is approved on the November ballot, my partner and I will be married in a Unitarian church. It has been a long engagement. I am 68 years old, and it has been my dream to get married to the man I love.

The Catholic Church's policies regarding marriage will not change. The Church will still be able to perform marriages with the requirement that the couple be "open to children."

What will change is that same-sex couples will have the right to a civil marriage with all the benefits and responsibilities that such marriages entail (except the federal ones). And they will be able to look into each others' eyes and say, "I am so glad I married you." (Instead of "I'm so glad we hitched up," or "I'm so glad we entered into a domestic partnership agreement with each other.") And each will be melded into the other's family in the same way that you are into your husband's.

DoughRemy

Posted Wed, Sep 12, 3:08 p.m. Inappropriate

Nobody should be so naïve as to confuse the doctrines of the Roman Catholic church, an organization run by a bunch of old white men in Rome whose thoughts have not advanced beyond the 16th century, and the teachings of Jesus Christ, which are timeless and current. Sen. Regala, you have made the right choice. I'm sorry that you have had to place yourself in conflict with at least parts of the faith community that has nurtured you since childhood. One by one, the fifty states and D.C. struggle to accept the idea that marriage is between two adults who love each other and who want to give formal legal expression to that love. Look northwards, Americans, to a country in which full equal marriage has been the law of the land since 2005!

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