University of Puget Sound/Ross Mulhausen
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.
Though Regala’s parents were influenced to some extent by the stereotypes and prejudices of their time, they raised their children to believe that everyone is equal. It’s why Regala never listened to those who warned her, in 1968, that she shouldn’t marry her husband, Leo, who is Filipino. “God never intended for races to intermarry,” one woman told her, disregarding the fact that interracial marriage had been legalized nationwide the year before. “That’s why He made us different colors.” Confronting discriminatory comments at that time was an experience that deepened Regala’s growing awareness of the ways prejudice and insensitivity can permeate social, cultural, and religious values and mindsets.
Differences in their backgrounds weren’t limited to race, either. Although baptized Catholic as an infant, Debbie Regala grew up attending the Presbyterian church located across the street from her childhood home, following her mother’s faith tradition. The adobe mission-style church with its inviting curves and distinctive bell tower is located just down the tree-lined street from the Catholic parish she would later attend as a wife, mother, and grandmother. Proximity to both churches shaped her life in rich, deep ways: neighbors included Reverend Long, the innovative, philanthropic Presbyterian pastor who helped Regala attain her dream of attending college after graduation from Stadium High School, and a handful of nuns whose collective presence once inspired her to dream about joining a convent. Regala recalls that the pastor and the priest were great friends who worked together to address social ills affecting their shared community. Her paternal grandmother, who also lived nearby, was nicknamed “Father Godley’s Alarm Clock,” due to her dashes up the rectory steps each Sunday at dawn to make sure the priest was awake and preparing for Mass.
Leo Regala, in contrast, was raised Catholic and attended Bellarmine Preparatory School, an esteemed Jesuit Catholic institution in Tacoma whose mission strives to “graduate students who are open to growth, intellectually competent, religious, loving, and committed to doing justice.” There, Leo learned that Catholic men and women have the responsibility to inform and follow their consciences, and even question elements of their own faith traditions that may contradict personal beliefs or insights thoughtfully and prayerfully arrived at. Their deepening friendship introduced Debbie Regala to new (Jesuit) ways of thinking about faith, public service, and moral conscience that she found, and continues to find, socially inspiring, mentally challenging, and spiritually uplifting. In Leo’s words, “The Catholic Church supports free will, and I was taught to question.”
They were married at the time of the Second Vatican Council, when Catholic tradition and theology were revitalized and made more accessible through the substitution of vernacular speech for Latin during the liturgy, an extension of roles and responsibility within the Church for laypeople, and an encouragement of interfaith and ecumenical relationships, among other teachings. Over the next four decades, their parish church served as the setting for those most significant sacramental moments that mark the seasons of a Catholic family’s life: baptisms, confirmations, weddings, confessions, blessings, funerals. Debbie Regala was an enthusiastic, active parishioner, serving at various times as a lector, a member of the parish council, and a pre-marriage counselor, an experience that helped her "think about what marriage and lifelong commitment is really about.”
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