Downtown San Francisco is the latest flashpoint in an ongoing debate over whether cities can still afford to not charge for parking on Sundays.

The story in most U.S. cities goes that on the seventh day, even parking enforcement officers rest. But thanks to slashed municipal budgets and seemingly never-ending congestion on the roads, that’s quickly and likely irrevocably changing.

Earlier this month, San Francisco became the latest city to announce it will begin enforcing parking meters on Sundays. For now, municipal traffic cops are merely leaving warnings on windshields to let motorists know about the upcoming policy change. But on February 2, meters will start ticking on Sundays at noon and require payment until 6 p.m.

The San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority argues the change will encourage turnover, relieve the bottlenecking that comes from drivers’ endless circling in hopes of nabbing an open space, and in theory, draw more visitors to the city with the promise of easier parking. Predictably, it’s also caused quite a stir among Bay Area residents who think Sunday churchgoers are being unfairly targeted and that local residents are being priced out of their own neighborhoods.

Of course, San Francisco’s Sunday parking woes aren’t remarkable. Both Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon, have charged for Sunday metered parking for several years. Chicago officials angered churchgoers forced to pay to pray when the Windy City also began enforcing Sunday meters in 2010. And San Francisco itself has, at a smaller scale, been doing the same for a while now, with meters running seven days a week amid the throng of tourists along Fisherman’s Wharf. The city also tries to take full advantage of Giants fans’ fat wallets, with meters in Mission Bay near AT&T Park operating until 10 p.m.

But it’s the citywide Sunday meter fee ordinance that’s incited the fiercest debate about the intersection of public parking, faith, and community service. San Francisco Interfaith Council Executive Director Michael Pappas says that he and many of the city’s religious and spiritual leaders were blindsided by SFMTA, which put together a stakeholder group without consulting anyone in the city’s faith community—something Pappas calls "a real infraction of due process."

Because SFMTA is an independent organization, no elected official can line item veto any part of its budget. Short of creating and passing new legislation, there isn’t much to be done about the change. That's unacceptable to people like Pappas, who see the new law as directly targeting urban communities of faith. "Penalizing people who just want to come and worship is more than significant," he argues, acknowledging that the debate may seem to favor Christian denominations but also impacts local temples that conduct Sunday classes. He cautions that the law will reach believers in every type of faith community, disrupting routine services and even funerals, if meters are enforced past 10 p.m. or 24-hours.

A quick overview for anyone without intimate knowledge of the Bay Area’s religious topography: San Francisco alone has more than 800 congregations, some of which existed long before cars were even invented. Moreover, the city’s communities of faith are an integral part of the social services safety net. S.F. has one of the nation’s highest homelessness rates, and churches and foundations in the downtown area, like Glide Memorial Church and the St. Anthony Foundation, are among the many non-profit organizations that serve thousands of free meals every day to the city’s destitute and homeless. (In the interest of full disclosure, I live near Glide and occasionally volunteer for meal service.) Leaders like Pappas who are opposed to Sunday meters immediately seized on not just the supposed injustice to people of faith, but also the burden put upon volunteers who drive downtown to serve the city’s poorest residents.

City officials contend that meters can be paid for up to four hours in advance, easing the burden on everyone. But Pappas counters the notion that believers should just pre-pay meters comes with myriad assumptions: that services will start and end on schedule, that time for uninterrupted fellowship should be secondary to plugging the meter, that churchgoers can afford to pay for parking, and that congregations won’t lose money thanks to lowered attendance rates. Many churches also earn supplementary income by renting out space to recovery program meetings or health and fitness instruction. Pappas wonders whether, in addition to discouraging congregants from attending Sunday services, ever-increasing meter fees lead to fewer participants in after-hours activities and an all-around revenue loss. He notes that Glide, the renowned community-oriented church best known as the safe haven for Chris Gardner (played by Will Smith) in the film The Pursuit of Happyness, could be forced to dip into its annual budget to hire additional parking attendants to handle traffic.

Pappas also can’t help but wonder: while out ticketing churchgoers, will Sunday SFMTA workers earn time and a half their normal salary?

Reverend Cecil Williams (R), pastor of Grace Memorial United Methodist Church, greets people who received bags of groceries, provided free to individuals and families in need, in San Francisco. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

Maybe these questions seem overwrought and invasive. But Milo Hanke, past president and current board member of neighborhood advocacy group San Francisco Beautiful, says government agencies invite criticism and scrutiny when they act without a mandate. The S.F. Municipal Railway (Muni), the city’s trolley and bus system which is overseen by the SFMTA, has recently been under fire for negligent use of funds following reports that some mechanics worked enough overtime in 2012 to effectively earn triple their normal salary. The Sunday meter fees are projected to bring in an extra $2 million dollars in 2013—a lot, relatively speaking, but only a slight increase above the $47 million meters already bring in annually. Two million dollars is even less when you consider that the MTA’s annual budget tops out over $700 million.

For all the hand wringing about how to boost Muni’s budget while saving churchgoers a few dollars, city officials can’t legally offer a churchgoer exemption and privilege certain private entities over others. According to the Reverend Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, believers can’t demand special treatment, no matter how unfair a measure seems. “If a community can agree upon a measure and it happens to benefit churches, it’s thereby legal for a secular purpose with a collateral purpose for churches,” he says. In other words, if citizens can make a secular case for abolishing meter fees—that Sunday enforcement will diminish tourism or somehow hamper the rhythm of city life—congregations can reap the rewards as well. Otherwise, no one gets a free pass to pray.

In order to make a policy change effective, it also has to be enforced. For an example, look no further than Washington, D.C., perhaps the city with the country’s most peculiar set of Sunday parking disputes. Back in March 2006, after long ignoring rule-breaking parishioners known to double-park during Sunday worship services, District police angered congregants by announcing that they would begin ticketing on Sundays that May. Local residents complained that suburban congregants coming into the city for Sunday services caused gridlock in residential neighborhoods, blocking driveways and making streets impassable. Believers shot back that skyrocketing rents and widespread gentrification had long since forced them out of their inner city homes and away from their beloved congregations. In the years since, the city has attempted to resolve the issue both by adding additional metered spaces and by implementing new resident-only parking restrictions. In some ways, the changes have only inflamed tensions.

So should cities look to Sunday meters a viable solution to budget woes? Or are local officials just asking to be pulled into drawn-out debates about gentrification, car reliance, and public space? Several cities, like Chicago and Denver, have been experimenting with 24-hour meters, which can often be pre-paid overnight. Other communities—including San Francisco—are weighing the long-term viability of variable meter prices that change based on time of day and demand.

Some of the near-term solutions like installing more long-run smart meters can be financially and logistically daunting, raising concerns about how the city’s middle class and working poor will adjust. Even in tech-savvy S.F., Pappas says, “You can’t expect a little old lady to have a pre-pay parking app on her smartphone.” But Lynn points out that for-profit companies like FedEx and delivery-based services see tickets for double parking and expired meters as part of the cost of doing business. Should city visitors and everyday commuters try to see things the same way?

Naturally, there’s already talk of a November ballot initiative to repeal Sunday meter enforcement. Given Oakland’s success repealing a similar meter enforcement rule in 2009, advocates working to stop “meter madness” are hopeful. Hanke says that a ballot measure proves that people actually care about this issue, and about transit. “People use Muni. They love it,” he says. But they might love their cars—and their God—more.

Top image: Darryl Brooks /Shutterstock

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