Debbie Regala, a devout Catholic, paid a high price for supporting marriage equality
by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
On February 13, State Sen. Debbie Regala (D-27th Dist., Tacoma) cast her vote in favor of Senate Bill 6239, legislation that will extend the freedom to marry for same-sex couples if voters Approve Referendum 74 this fall.
While LGBTQ and allied communities cheered the bill's passage, Sen. Regala, a devout Catholic, gathered her things and went home.
Her conscience was clear - after all, her vote had everything to do with her work and nothing to do with her faith.
But Regala would soon find out that among friends and colleagues, something had changed. The senator received a flurry of e-mails from fellow parishioners - friends, acquaintances, and lesser-known church members - critical of her position on this issue.
After almost two decades of experience as an elected official, Regala felt that these messages had entered, literally, a sacred place.
According to Crosscut.com, the comments ranged from general disapproval to disappointment to outrage. Regala said 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.
TIME FOR A CHANGE
Shaken by the intensity of these parishioners' reactions, Crosscut said, and uncertain 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.
'Referendum 74 is not about the Catholic definition of sacramental marriage,' Regala told Crosscut reporter Julie Gunter. '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.'
Regala credits numerous conversations with constituents, colleagues, family, and friends on the subject of Gay rights, sparked around the dinner table or on the Senate floor, as the inspiration behind her desire to gain a comprehensive understanding of the issue.
MASS WITH MURRAY
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, considering her previous voting record, said Crosscut.
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, she forged a friendship with Sen. Ed Murray, a longtime champion of Gay rights and a lifelong Catholic. 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 conservative Protestant ministers in 1960: 'I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.'
For Regala, changing the location where she attends church hasn't changed the essentials of her own faith, which she described simply though meaningfully at different points during our conversations as her 'personal connection to God.' Yet the process of rediscovering a community with whom to celebrate this personal faith has proved an enlightening journey, in that she has continued to learn about herself and others along the way.
A SUPPORTIVE COMMUNITY
According to Crosscut, parishioners at Regala's new church home, St. Leo's in Tacoma, have also affirmed their decision through smiles, embraces, and 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 within any given community.
Regala's public career over the span of two decades has focused on education, family welfare, conservation, and repeal of the death penalty, among other issues - following 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.
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