The United House of Prayer (UHOP) recently sent a letter to DDOT Director Leif Dormsjo claiming that restricting free parking on public streets near their church, as DDOT has proposed doing as part of the Eastern Downtown Protected Bikeways study, "would place an extreme burden on the free exercise of religion". Furthermore they claim that UHOP, and other historically African-American churches, are being discriminated against by DDOT in order to force them to sell their property and move out of the city, and that this discriminatory treatment denies them equal protection under the law. Finally they claim that bike lanes aren't even needed there since, in the 90 years that UHOP has been in it's location, "bicycles have freely and safely traversed the District of Columbia...without any protected bicycle lanes."
Opposing bike lanes because of the impact on parking is nothing new for DC churches. St. John's Episcopal Church made the same claim, that the lack of parking would force their parishioners elsewhere, back in 1995 and yet today they still have a "vibrant" community. The Methodist AME church on M Street complained about the impact of the proposed protected bike lane there on their older members. And the pastor of Galbraith A.M.E Zion Church, representing several churches on 6th Street, did the same during the early stages of this project. But none went so far as to claim they were being discriminated against as part of a plan to force them out of the city or that they were being denied the right to practice their religion. This represents a whole new standard.
The letter, sent on the church's behalf by Mary E. Gately of DLA Piper makes these outrageous claims about the impact, legality and alternatives to a protected bikeway on 6th Street while ignoring the simple fact that the claims are inaccurate and offered, in every case, without a shred of evidence.
They state that the parking restrictions included in the proposal would "impermissibly infringe...upon the Church's and parishioners' Constitutionally protected rights of free religion." But that's not true. The basis for their claim is not the Constitution, because the court has already decided in Employment Division v. Smith and Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association that neutral acts of government, such as zoning laws or taxes, that incidentally impacted religious activity were not unconstitutional.
Instead, the actual basis of their believed protection is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which Congress passed in response to those case. The RFRA reinstated, as a statutory right, the Sherbert Test and required the government to accept additional obligations to protect religious exercise. When the Supreme Court struck down the RFRA's applicability to states, Congress amended the law, via the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act so that it applied only to the Federal government and its entities, which includes the District of Columbia.
The church is concerned that the installation of protected bikeways on 6th and M will restrict parking on publicly owned land and that this will represent a "significant burden" on the church. But the court has always defined "significant burden" as forcing people to choose between following their religious beliefs or avoid a penalty/retaining a benefit. Like agreeing to work on Saturdays to keep unemployment benefits, or paying a $5 fine for homeschooling. But the idea that reducing on-street parking near a church is a "significant burden" on religion is a misreading the law. No one is being forced into a choice that might lead to an action that is against their religion - unless their religion has a prohibition on walking a couple of blocks. And arguing that restricting parking near a church that is served by transit, sidewalks, roads and bike facilities is a significant burden in the layman's sense is laughable at best.
In addition to making an RFRA claim, the church asserts that the restriction on parking and loss of a traffic lane deprives them of equal protection under the law. The "D.C. government seems to view tax exempt church-owned properties as a drag on revenue" and thus DDOT appears to be "targeting historically African-American churches with restrictive parking regulations and extremely stringent enforcement to drive them out of the District" at which point the churches "must sell their tax-exempt D.C. property to non-tax exempt developers." That's a lot of supposition masquerading as truth.
Rather than creating new regulations to harm church parking - which is not what DDOT is proposing here, there is more proof that DDOT has created extraordinarycarve-outs and exceptions to the existing regulations to accommodate church parking.
There is also no evidence that D.C. is trying to force churches, and certainly not historically African-American churches, out of the District. That's a pretty incendiary and extraordinary claim - and Ms. Gately should know that such claims require extraordinary evidence. And even if DC were trying to drive churches (and, inexplicably, only the historically African-American ones) out of DC, churches that move are not required to sell to tax-exempt developers. If DC were doing something like what is claimed, that would be illegal (as well as bad policy and bad politics) but since there is no evidence at all that this is the plan, there is no denial of equal protection.
Most troublesome perhaps, is their claim that a bike facility isn't even needed here. "The encroachment is entirely unnecessary to achieve DDOT's goal of increasing bicycle rights of way." UHOP complains that DDOT, because it hasn't changed its plans, hasn't listened to their concerns (you'd think that a church with "prayer" in the name would understand that even God doesn't answer every prayer. Should DDOT be expected to do better?); but it's unclear that UHOP has been listening to DDOT's reasons for changing the street. DDOT's goal is create a street that is safer and more appealing for cyclists, one that encourages a wider variety of cyclists to ride bikes in the area and that goal can not be achieved by the status quo.
UHOP instead proposes, in language that is jumbled and incomplete*, that the bikeway simply divert around the church by using N Street and some other numbered street before returning to 6th south of the church. This "alternative" ignores the way people travel, as well as the goals of the project, and if 5th is their intended alternative (they either conveniently or absent-mindedly fail to say), it has two churches along the block from M to N and one along 5th. What about their religious freedom and equal protection under the law? UHOP cynically seems to not care.
Asking that the bike facility still be built, but somewhere farther away from them is classic NIMBY behavior. Surely UHOP can be a better neighbor than that, They should work with DDOT to find a solution to their parking needs while also building a bicycle facility fitting the District's needs, without resorting to unfounded, and inflammatory, accusations.
*"there is another alternative that would simply entail altering the proposed bicycle lane's route by one block, such that the bike tracks would follow 6th Street to "N" street for the block or two needed to avoid impacting adversely on any parking..." I have no idea what that actually means. To N Street from where? And then what? This is gibberish. But I've done my best.