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Religious groups historically have had influence on public life in the Inland Northwest

To inform the Inland Northwest faith community about issues before the 2008 Washington State Legislature, representatives from the Washington Association of Churches, the Lutheran Public Policy Office, the Religious Coalition for the Common Good and the Friends Committee on Washington Public Policy discussed proposals during a Legislative Advocacy Event on Jan. 13 at Spokane Friends Church.

Paul Benz, Darel Grothaus and Alice Woldt

Darel Grothaus, director of the Washington Association of Churches (WAC), said the 32-year-old partnership of Protestants and Catholics recently formed the Religious Coalition for the Common Good to include more voices.

“Public attention in recent years to the religious right diminished the voice of historical faiths—Jewish, Catholic and Protestant—concerned about the common good being served by sharing the common wealth and by producing peace and justice,” said Darel, noting that the governor and legislators have expressed appreciation for the coalition’s uniting voices of eight partners on a common agenda.

At the event, Dale Soden, professor of history at Whitworth University, described trends among historical faiths in the “none zone” of the Northwest, where most people check “none of the above” when asked to list their faith.

In a book he is writing, he describes the 170-year history of Protestants, Catholics and Jews seeking to influence legislation and public life in the Inland Northwest and Northwest.

Because extracting resources—gold, silver, timber and wheat—spurred economic growth in the early 20th century, many young, single working-class men settled in Spokane, living in cheap boarding houses.  There were 250 saloons and more than 300 women in prostitution.

From the 1880s to 1910, the business community supported prostitution as a “necessary outlet” for men and in order to “protect respectable women.”  Prostitutes who did not register were fined, adding to the city’s coffers, Dale said.  A coalition of downtown churches opposed to prostitution persisted in a two- to three-decade battle with the business community and city.

The church leaders challenged business and city arguments about the economic advantage of prostitution.  Eventually, the churches ended legal prostitution, a sign of their influence in this least-churched area, he said.

Dale discussed the impact of the area’s faith communities:

1) Ecumenical activity has a long history here because missionaries were at their core ecumenical.  In 1919, councils of churches formed in Seattle, Spokane and elsewhere.

2) The Northwest has a high level of ecumenical activity, partly because the “thinness of denominations” makes them “realize they need each other,” he said.

3) Despite their small numbers, mainline churches contribute to the social capital through social services, food banks, legislative advocacy and civil rights.

4) Commitment to social justice is strongest when linked to a theological world view—such as Catholic social teachings, the Calvinistic biblical mandate, the Lutheran love mandate or the United Church of Christ commitment to justice, he added.  People will listen, respect and acknowledge the theological values, even if they do not agree.

5) Churches have been at the heart of cultural conflicts in the last 40 years in the Northwest.  Since the 1960s, when polarized divisions among people as liberals or conservatives left little room for compromise, ecumenical churches challenged those divisions. 

6) Ecumenical churches have sought to break through stereotypes, aware that not all evangelical churches are among the religious right and not all liberal Christians are biblically illiterate.  Their strategy is to reach out, listen and collaborate with those sharing common concerns.

Alice Woldt of the Religious Coalition for the Common Good (RCCG) reported on gathering input for the 2008 priorities and on resources available through weekly Alerts at

On the housing crisis and homelessness, Alice told of a request to add $100 million to the Housing Trust Fund to subsidize low-income housing providers so they do not focus on middle- and upper-middle-income homes.

On health care, she said there is  a request for state households earning up to 320 percent of poverty level to be eligible for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) vetoed at the federal level.

Paul Benz of the Lutheran Public Policy Office (LPPO) discussed environmental stewardship, tax fairness, health care and immigration reform priorities.

• One proposal would let schools use subsidies to buy local food, link local farms with school cafeterias and food banks, and allow use of WIC (Women’s Infants’ and Children’s) vouchers at farmers’ markets.

• To promote tax fairness for working families, another proposal would provide a state tax credit based on the federal Earned Income Credit to help people rise out of poverty.  Another bill would require those who receive tax breaks for providing jobs to show they actually do provide jobs.

An immigration reform initiative would promote the naturalization of 135,000 legal permanent residents.  Paul pointed out that the immigrant community is “important to our state’s economy, so we should exhibit hospitality.  Immigration is a state, as well as a federal issue.”

Carol Estes, state advocate for the Friends Committee on Washington Public Policy, finds in teaching college classes at the Monroe Correctional Center that it’s hard for inmates to re-enter the system.  She said one bill would establish a corrections ombudsperson to help people regain control over their lives and re-establish their rights. 

She also suggests a moratorium on interest that inmates now pay on legal financial obligations while they are in prison.  Now their debts accumulate 12 percent interest a year.  Until those debts are paid, released prisoners cannot have their voting or other rights restored, she said.

Cathy Mann of VOICES (Voices for Opportunity, Income, Childcare, Education and Support) in Spokane summarized the $22 million antipoverty package, which includes grants to help low-income high school graduates go to college; an increase in housing stipends for disabled workers, and revising the asset limits for those receiving food stamps.

She urges rental assistance to reduce costs to the state when people become homeless and the elimination of asset levels for qualifying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Funding (TANF) and General Assistance for Unemployed (GAU).

RCCG, Lutheran and Washington State Catholic Conference leaders will share updates at the Eastern Washington Legislative Conference, organized by Scott Cooper of Catholic Charities. 

It will be held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Saturday Feb. 16, at Our Lady of Lourdes Cathedral, 1115 W. Riverside.

For information, call 358-4273 or 206-625-9790.