With only two weeks before voters decide whether to make same-sex marriage legal in Washington, Debbie Regala has been making phone calls urging people to vote yes on Referendum 74.
It’s a modest effort the Democratic state senator from Tacoma has made to support gay men and lesbians who want to marry.
She made a more personal sacrifice earlier this year: choosing to leave the church where she was baptized, was married and had attended for 44 years.
The backlash from some members at St. Patrick Catholic Church was too much for her after she joined fellow lawmakers in voting to legalize same-sex marriage last February.
“It became clear to me there were enough fellow parishioners that were not welcoming that it would be better for me to go to another parish,” Regala said. “I chose to leave, but I felt I didn’t have a lot of choice.”
Her pastor at the North End church expressed sadness that Regala chose to leave but said he disagrees with the senator’s stance supporting gay marriage.
“I’d be sorry that anybody left our parish,” said the Rev. Seamus Laverty. “We’re not in the business of alienating people or excluding people. That doesn’t mean we have to trample on our principles to do that.”
The falling out is an example of how same-sex marriage has divided families, friends and church relationships, even before Washington voters referred it to the Nov. 6 ballot. Opponents of same-sex marriage gathered more than 240,000 signatures to try to overturn the law passed by the Legislature.
Hours after Regala took her Senate vote last winter, the outcry started at her church.
One parishioner emailed her that she should no longer receive Holy Communion. Another was appalled that Regala had helped prepare couples in the church for marriage. Others were simply disappointed and questioned how she could call herself a Catholic.
“Obviously, it was a little hurtful,” said Regala, 67, who will retire in January after 18 years in the Legislature. “I certainly knew that some people would be unhappy with that vote.”
Regala worried about the reaction that would await her if she went back to Mass. So she didn’t.
A week later, she and her husband, Leo Regala, were officially registered as members of St. Leo Catholic Parish on Tacoma’s Hilltop. Regala, who represents the 27th Legislative District, has found support at St. Leo, where she said most parishioners share her stance.
CIVIL VS. SACRAMENTAL
The Roman Catholic Church, including its Washington bishops, opposes legalizing same-sex marriage. In April, Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain sent a letter to parishioners in Western Washington, defending traditional marriage.
Regala said legalizing gay marriage won’t change the church’s right to define marriage as being between a man and a woman or its ability to limit who it will marry.
But the church doesn’t have the right to force its definition on the rest of the population, she said.
“The Catholic Church is hoping to impose its view,” Regala said. “They’re confusing civil marriage and sacramental marriage.”
The pastor at St. Patrick, however, says there is no such distinction. “Marriage is marriage, period, whether it’s sacramental or otherwise,” Laverty said.
He stressed that marriage has always been defined as the union between a man and a woman.
“That’s the way God has ordained it from the start,” he said. “The purpose of marriage is for procreation and the good of the couple. I don’t think you can separate the two.”
In an interview last week, Laverty said Regala’s departure is a “very delicate” subject for him to address.
But he defended those in his parish who criticized Regala.
“We do have a right – especially with someone in public office – to disagree with their decisions when it concerns public policy,” said Laverty, who leads the parish of 1,200 families. “The people who criticized Debbie had a right to do so.”
Leaders at St. Patrick and St. Leo parishes have staked out different positions on the referendum.
When the archbishop asked for support collecting signatures at churches to put R-74 on the ballot, St. Leo Parish opted not to help.
Meanwhile, at St. Patrick, opposition has been clear and consistent. Signatures were gathered there. Bulletin inserts defending traditional marriage have been distributed. Laverty has spoken out in homilies against the measure and in support of traditional marriage.
In just two days after she voted Feb. 1 to legalize same-sex marriage, Regala said, she received 10 emails from fellow St. Patrick parishioners who expressed disappointment and anger.
Within two weeks, the measure cleared the House and Gov. Chris Gregoire signed it into law.
Regala describes herself as a devout Catholic who attends Mass almost every Sunday.
But she rejects the view that “because I was a Catholic I had to follow the hierarchy teaching and impose that on the wider population of Washington.”
“That’s not what our constitution says we do,” she said.
She said her job as a legislator is to represent her district. And she said her support for same-sex marriage wasn’t new.
Regala said denying gay men and lesbians – “our brothers and sisters who are also creations of God” – the right to marry is discriminatory.
ACROSS THE NATION
The reaction to Regala’s support for gay marriage and her parish switch was first chronicled last month in a story on Crosscut, a website for Northwest news. Then national media outlets – the National Catholic Reporter and The Huffington Post – picked up the story.
Since then, Regala said, she has heard from many gay men and lesbians and their family members in Tacoma and across the country who have left their parish over the Catholic Church’s opposition to same-sex marriage.
“They feel that the church has now marginalized their family member,” she said. “It’s been sad for me to hear so many stories.”
Greg Magnoni, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Seattle, said he hasn’t seen any evidence that people have left the church over the ballot measure. If people were leaving, their departures would be felt in levels of giving to the church. But Magnoni said donations to parishes have increased this year and the archdiocese’s annual fundraising appeal remains constant.
“This is a very difficult issue for all Catholics,” Magnoni said. “We all know and love someone who is in a same-sex relationship. Most Catholics stay and struggle and look for grace in that.”
Regala said it was hard for her to leave St. Patrick, the place where her three children were baptized.
“I miss seeing some of the people,” Regala said.
But she knew neither she nor the parish would change their positions, and she feared her presence at Mass would be distracting or disruptive. She said she had experienced criticism in the past at St. Patrick due to her pro-choice stance on abortion rights.
Regala said she has no regrets about voting to legalize same-sex marriage. And she’s found a parish where she feels comfortable.
“St. Leo’s has been so welcoming,” Regala said. “I’m very happy with where I am.”firstname.lastname@example.org