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Best of 2012: Marriage equality and 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

Editors' note: Each day during the holidays, Crosscut will revisit top stories from the last year in a specific category. Today's focus is on election coverage. This article was originally published Sept. 7, 2012.

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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