15 Oct 2015

D.C. church says a bike lane would infringe upon its constitutional ‘rights of religious freedom’

The District government is going through the rather municipally boring process of determining where to build a bike lane on the east side of downtown.
And one church has given a charged response to some proposals, saying that a bike lane near its property would infringe upon “its constitutionally protected rights of religious freedom and equal protection of the laws.”
The District Department of Transportation is exploring installing a protected bike lane going northbound and southbound somewhere between Fifth and Ninth streets NW that would connect to popular east and west protected bike lanes, such as M and L streets NW, or Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
The United House of Prayer is located in the 600 block of M Street NW and three of the four possible bike lane routes would run along at least parts of Sixth Street NW between Florida and Constitution avenues NW. (There is currently a bike lane going northbound on Fifth Street NW starting where the street becomes one way in that direction at the intersection of Fifth Street, New York Avenue and L Street NW.)
The church, represented by a lawyer, wrote in a letter to DDOT, which WashCycle blog obtained and reported on, that the proposals along Sixth Street are “unsupportable, unrealistic and particularly problematic for traffic and parking.” The church, which says it has more than 800 congregants, notes that the Convention Center is in the area, which already exacerbates traffic and parking issues. Consequently, as many car lanes and parking space as possible are needed on the street.
The parking loss would place an unconstitutionally undue burden on people who want to pray, the church argues, noting that other churches already have had to flee to the suburbs because of similarly 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.
“As you know, bicycles have freely and safely traversed the District of Columbia throughout the 90-year history of the United House of Prayer, without any protected bicycle lanes and without infringing in the least on the United House of Prayer’s religious rights,” the letter states. “More importantly, as discussed at various points with DDOT, there is another alternative that would simply entail altering the proposed bike 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 adjacent to God’s White House on 6th and M Streets.” 
This isn’t the first time a local church has turned a proposed bike lane into a political fight. When the westbound M Street NW protected cycle track was being planned, Metropolitan AME church complained that it would result in a loss of parking for the church. 
Ultimately, after a much-heated back-and-forth between the church, city and cycling advocates, the city agreed to make the bike lane unprotected in front of the church. The church was happy with his outcome, but cycling advocates warned that this could set a dangerous precedent for other churches and businesses who do not want a bike lane in front of their establishments.
Many of D.C.’s old churches were built at times when their neighborhoods weren’t as busy and parking wasn’t a big issue. On top of that, many longtime churchgoers priced out of the city in D.C. have left for the suburbs and now commute to their old churches by car.
At this point, it’s unclear if the city would consider having the protected bike lane be, well, unprotected on Sixth Street NW in front of the United House of Prayer. DDOT spokesman Terry Owens wrote in an e-mail that the bike lane study will last through the end of 2015 and that the agency will not be “making any design decisions, such as how particular blocks are configured until we have decided on a street and design approach.”
“We are factoring what we hear into our decision-making, and will continue to work on minimizing and mitigating any impacts when we get down to a preferred alternative,” Owens wrote.
A church official said Tuesday that no one was available this week to comment on the letter.

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