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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.

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.”

Leaving decades of memories and family history behind proved a wrenching process for Regala, especially since it was a choice she never imagined she’d have to make. She reflects that her support of marriage equality shouldn’t have come as a surprise, after all, considering her previous voting record. Regala’s public support of the LGBT community can be traced back to 1996, when, in her second year as a state legislator, she delivered a speech to colleagues on the House floor in opposition to Washington’s Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Around that same time, a friendship with Sen. Ed Murray, a longtime champion of gay rights and lifelong Catholic, was fostered. Regala remembers that she and Murray would attend Mass together when the archbishop was passing through Olympia, choosing seats front and center so that, despite differing views on some social issues, it was clear that their faith was important to them and, in Regala’s words, “they weren’t going anywhere.”

John F. Kennedy famously proclaimed in his speech to Protestant ministers in 1960: “I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.” Regala’s public career over the span of two decades — work that has focused on education, family welfare, conservancy, and repeal of the death penalty, among other issues — followed that same faith philosophy. Though her Catholic faith shapes her sense of self and informs her decisions, its role stops there. As the elected representative of all constituents within the 27th District, Regala believes that it would be a betrayal of public trust to vote on policy according to the dictates of any special interest or organization, faith-based or otherwise. 

For Regala, changing locations for attending church hasn’t changed the essentials of her own faith, described simply though meaningfully at different points during our conversations as her “personal connection to God.” Yet the process of rediscovering a community to celebrate this personal faith with has proved an enlightening journey, in that she has continued to learn about herself and others along the way. Parishioners at St. Leo have also affirmed their decision through smiles, embraces, supportive words. The first morning in late winter that Regala and her husband arrived for Mass at their new parish, the visiting priest, the Rev. Peter Byrne, S.J., Assistant to the Provincial of the Jesuits' Oregon Province, delivered a homily of outreach and personal challenge that, as Regala recalls, couldn’t have been more timely or applicable to their situation. Byrne’s message explored the consequences that can and do occur when walls of division, physical or otherwise, are erected between people or groups of people within any given community.

Byrne told the story of a beloved Quaker nurse who died at the end of World War I in a Polish village. The parishioners asked their priest if she could be buried in the Catholic cemetery, the only one in town. The priest, feeling that the rule that only a Catholic could be buried in the cemetery must be obeyed, suggested the nurse be buried just outside the cemetery’s fence instead. The next morning, the priest discovered that the fence had been moved around her gravesite, so that she could be included among those she had served. Love had had its say. Byrne later explained, “Now this all flowed from the Gospel text of Jesus always stretching the boundaries to include those who were outcasts. It is this moving of the fence … that is the call of the Gospel.” The homily confirmed for Regala what she had sensed in the deepest part of herself: she was right to trust her own conscience. Christ didn’t build fences. Neither would she.

Before leaving St. Leo's, Regala gestures toward the stained glass windows, reflecting that “sometime I should take a closer look at these.” Etched in the lower portion of each kaleidoscopic pane is the name of a long-ago patron or patrons who once graced the life of St. Leo’s. The names preserve a sense of identity and tradition that hint at the city’s beginnings, when Tacoma was known as the City of Destiny because trains for the Northern Pacific Railroad ended their westbound trips here; rimming the worship space, they are vivid proof of humanity’s collective yearning to participate, to be remembered, to belong intricately. For Regala, commitment to stretching and deepening connectedness to God and obedience to Christ’s teachings to love and serve others have ultimately found ample room for growth and nourishment here.

Somewhat serendipitously, Regala discovered only recently that her great-grandmother was married at St. Leo in 1885, only six years after the church’s founding (albeit at a different site). Her great-great-grandmother was also an early parishioner; after a little more archival digging inspired in the weeks after our conversations, she learned that the funerals of other long-ago relatives took place at St. Leo as well. Such realizations have infused Regala’s arrival here with an unanticipated sense of homecoming, as though the journey forward is also a circling back, an unexpected, long-awaited return.

Julie Gunter is a Seattle-based writer, editor, former English teacher, and mildly sleep-deprived parent to two young girls. She enjoys writing stories about inspirational people in her midst. In addition to contributing stories to Crosscut, her writing has appeared in the National Catholic Reporter, Issaquah + Sammamish, and Liv Fun, a magazine geared toward active seniors. She can be reached through editor@crosscut.com.

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


Posted Fri, Oct 5, 7:01 a.m. Inappropriate


Posted Fri, Oct 5, 7:03 a.m. Inappropriate

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