HERE’S A NEW YEAR’S reflection as newly elected public servants take office this month: While the First Amendment commands social distancing between government and religion, there’s never been a year they haven’t mixed it up. Indeed, spiritual leaders long have challenged citizens to use free speech and the ballot box for what they see as the public good.

This week’s “Then” photo, looking north at Seattle’s old Westlake Mall, is an apt demonstration. Led by Catholic, Jewish and Protestant clerics, some 1,500 opponents of racist real-estate covenants hoisted a sea of signs on March 7, 1964, to urge voter passage of a city open-housing ordinance.

Now & Then

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“Voting against basic rights of men is against the will of God,” the Rev. James Lynch of St. James Cathedral told the crowd beneath the beams of the Monorail, which opened for the World’s Fair two years prior, and in front of the elegant 1927 Orpheum Theatre three years away from its razing.

With opponents stoking fears of “forced” housing, the 1964 measure failed, 115,627 to 54,448. But as vowed at the rally by the Rev. Dr. John Adams, chair of the Central Area Committee for Civil Rights, “We will not be deterred until we have the respect, dignity and freedom we deserve.”

The political tide turned in 1968, when the city council passed an open-housing ordinance whose ban on racial discrimination expanded in 1975 to gender, marital status, sexual orientation and political ideology; in 1979 to age and parental status; in 1986 to creed and disability; and in 1999 to gender identity.

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Such issues captivate Dale Soden, a 35-year history professor at Spokane’s Whitworth University. He’s written two books and many articles documenting how religious activism — for good and ill — has shaped Northwest politics. His life’s work earned him the 2019-20 Robert Gray Medal, the Washington State Historical Society’s highest honor, bestowed last September.

Soden, a white Lutheran, grew up in Bellevue, then nearly all-white. The earliest of his many career influences was his Black sixth-grade teacher at Robinswood Elementary School, the booming-voiced Don Phelps, later a KOMO-TV analyst and community-college chancellor in Seattle and Los Angeles.

Civil rights and Vietnam War protests fueled Soden’s adult direction: “I was always trying to figure out whether Christianity made any difference in how you looked at the world or lived your life.”

Clearly, he believes it has — and should. Though the Northwest is acknowledged as the least-churched region of the country, and while its religious leaders might seem less prominent in the public square than in 1964, Soden says their function “is still potent.”