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