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Topics In the News
Conscience of a Catholic Legislator
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 09/15/12
Last updated on: 09/15/12
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Senator Debbie Regala.

Washington state senator Debbie Regala is a strong supporter of marriage equality. During the debate on Washington's marriage equality bill, the veteran Catholic legislator spoke movingly in its favor, citing her own interracial marriage as a reason she was happy that marriage had been "redefined" in the past. As a result of her support, however, she experienced hostility in her parish. Luckily, she found a new parish that has been much more accepting. Her experience illustrates both the strength of her character and the fissures within the Roman Catholic Church in regard to social issues, especially the growing chasm between the hierarchy and the laity in regard to marriage equality.

Senator Regala has represented Tacoma in the state senate since 2000. From 1994 to 2000, she served in the state House of Representatives. She is currently the Democratic Caucus Vice Chair and has previously served as Majority Whip.

As Julie Gunter reports in Seattle's news site Crosscut.com, following Senator Regala's February 13 vote in favor of marriage equality, she became uncomfortable in the Roman Catholic church she had attended for more than 40 years.

"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."

Regala was shaken by the intensity of these reactions, but she never questioned her belief that glbtq people should be granted equal rights under the law, a matter of conscience that had been shaped by her life experiences, her understanding of democratic values, and her adherence to Christian teaching. She and her husband Leo decided that if such a perspective was unwelcome in the parish, they were also unwelcome. They decided to leave the parish.

They found a much more accepting congregation at St. Leo's Catholic Church in Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood, which provides a spiritual home for many people of diverse views and backgrounds. At St. Leo's, individuals are encouraged to inform and follow their consciences, even when they reach conclusions that contradict those of the hierarchy.

Senator Regala told Gunter that she regrets that the Catholic Church has chosen to insert itself in the battle over the definition of civil marriage, especially to the extent of sponsoring Referendum 74, which seeks to nullify the marriage equality bill.

"Referendum 74 is not about the Catholic definition of sacramental marriage," she observed. "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."

Senator Regala's support for marriage equality stems both from her conscientious belief in equal rights and from her personal experiences. She grew up with a gay brother and a lesbian sister (both now deceased), and when she and her Filipino husband married in 1968, they were acutely aware that interracial marriage had been legalized nationwide only the year before.

Senator Regala's refusal to back down on her beliefs in the face of bullying from her Church is a refreshing example of an individual's strength of conscience.

In a document published on March 28, 2003 and approved by Pope John Paul II, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith not only condemned with unusual vituperation same-sex marriage (declaring, for example, that homosexual unions are "evil" and that allowing homosexual couples to adopt children would amount to violence against children), but also announced that "When legislation in favour of the recognition of homosexual unions is proposed . . . in a legislative assembly, the Catholic law-maker has a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it. To vote in favour of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral."

Luckily, however, many Catholic politicians have had the strength of character to follow their consciences rather than the dictates to the Church. Soon after the publication of the document in 2003, several prominent Catholic politicians, including Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Senator John Kerry, and General Wesley Clark, pointedly disassociated themselves from any obligation to follow the dictates of the Church hierarchy in secular matters.

Senator Regala's experience also illustrates the fissures within the Church. Despite the hierarchy's attempt to enforce uniformity of belief, the Roman Catholic Church is less of a monolith than it might appear. Indeed, polls have shown that in the United States Roman Catholics constitute one of the strongest religious demographics in favor of glbtq rights, including marriage equality.

In the video below, Senator Regala speaks in favor of the marriage equality bill on the floor of the Washington state senate.

In the following video, Catholic clergy and laity sing in support of glbtq people and in opposition to Minnesota's proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. The beautiful hymn they are singing, "For All the Children," was written by David Lohman, the Faith Work Coordinator for the Institute for Welcoming Resources of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and a church music director.

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