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Opposing a Bike Lane on the Grounds of 'Religious Freedom'

What the United House of Prayer in Washington, D.C., really means is “free parking.”

NCinDC / Flickr

Some drivers and retailers will use just about any excuse to oppose a bike lane, but the United House of Prayer in Washington, D.C., just took things up a notch by bringing God into the mix.

The church recently denounced plans for a protected bike lane along 6th Street NW on the grounds that such a street design would violate the congregation’s “constitutionally protected rights of religious freedom and equal protection of the laws,” according to a letter sent to the District Department of Transportation on UHP’s behalf. The problem isn’t so much the cyclists themselves as the loss of free street parking for congregants. Perry Stein at The Washington Post has the details:

The parking loss would place an unconstitutionally undue burden on people who want to pray, the church argues, noting that other churches already have fled to the suburbs because of onerous parking restrictions. The church says that DDOT lets cars park diagonally on the street during busy times, which would be seemingly impossible if a protected bike lane were on the street.

This isn’t the first time DDOT has been at the mercy of a church that didn’t want to lose its parking spots to bike infrastructure. In 2013, city officials agreed to reduce a planned protected bike lane to an unprotected one along M Street NW after getting pressure from the Metropolitan AME church. That decision set several terrible precedents—compromising rider safety, for one, and letting parking rule the streets—and no doubt emboldened the United House of Prayer to challenge the matter this time around.

A proposed bike lane alternative for the 6th Street corridor. No final design has been chosen. (DDOT)

In its letter to DDOT, the church calls the 6th Street corridor “particularly problematic for traffic and parking, and thus not a good location for bicycle lanes/tracks.” It continues:

If any of these design options are implemented, it would severely restrict the already limited parking for United House of Prayer members adjacent to the church, leaving them with nowhere to park to attend services and other Church functions. As such, the planned bike lane will create a permanent and untenable burden on members’ ability to attend services at the Church. Any plan by DDOT to eliminate all 6th and “M” Street parking by installing a bike lane/track along those thoroughfares would represent a substantial and egregious encroachment on the United House of Prayer’s rights.

UHP threatens to “proceed expeditiously with legal action” if the dispute can’t be settled with the city.

There’s a long history of contentious church parking issues in this part of D.C., which is adjacent to the Washington Convention Center. The surrounding area is home to dozens of historically black churches, while the neighborhood itself has become noticeably younger and whiter over the past 15 years. As property values have skyrocketed, the migration of middle-class black families to neighboring Maryland counties has led to a very real Sunday-parking crunch. Current residents have complained that they fight for spaces with double-parked, out-of-state cars driven in to attend services. Back in 2006, the city attempted to solve the issue by converting dozens of traditional on-street parking spaces into angled spots.

In the case of United House of Prayer, the large and influential church is by any definition located in close proximity to mass transit. But given the proportion of churchgoers who are elderly or who are not currently well-served by WMATA’s unreliable weekend rail service, it’s actually pretty understandable that so many congregants choose to drive. Still, that doesn’t mean that the city is required to provide all of them with free on-street parking.

DDOT tells Stein that it hasn’t made a final decision about the street design and won’t do so until the end of the year. Here’s guessing church leaders aren’t expecting any bikes for Christmas.

Sommer Mathis contributed to this story.

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