WWJP (Where Would Jesus Park)?

No Parking SignWith all of the talk over the last few months about “death panels,” nationalizing banks, and the dangers of trying al Qaeda terrorists on U.S. soil, it is easy to believe that attacks on our freedoms are easy to spot, but often they are not.

They can hide on quiet Sunday streets. They can lurk in the shadows of a perfect fall day.

A couple of Sundays ago, I was walking in downtown Philadelphia at around 3PM when I came upon a traffic attendant writing a ticket for a car parked on the north side of Spruce Street just south of Rittenhouse Square. As I often saw vehicles parked up and down the street on Sundays despite the clear “No Stopping Any Time” signs, I decided to ask what the rule was.

I was told by the attendant that the City tickets cars “after church let’s out.” WhenI pressed the attendant on whether that was the official policy, she told me it was.

Doing a little more research (plucky young academic that I am), I found some interesting details at the website of the Tenth Presbyterian Church. According to the site, “The City of Philadelphia generously permits parking by the congregation in designated areas near the church for Sunday services and for certain types of congregational special events.” To enjoy these “[s]pecial relaxed street parking privileges,” a member of the congregation must pick up a church-issued parking placard from one of the church lobbies and display it in the front windshield. The church goes on to offer to “help resolve” any tickets that are received despite displaying the placard.

Yes, perhaps, I’m just frustrated to not be among the chosen—I do covet a good parking spot—but this doesn’t seem, well, “kosher.”

If the city of Philadelphia does not believe that there are enough parking places in Center City on Sundays, there is any easy answer: remove the parking prohibition on Sundays for all Philadelphians—Christians, Muslims, Jews, agnostics, and atheists alike. There is no reason that a tax-paying secular humanist who wants to take her children to the park ought to get a ticket and a tax-paying Christian who wants to attend services ought not.

As this has piqued my interest, I have vague (and unlikely-to-be-realized) plans to fill out a request for information from the City, but before I do that I think it is best to make outrageous claims and reach unfounded conclusions based solely on the above details. What do you think? Is this totally harmless or . . . an affront to the history of Pennsylvania, a violation of the United States Constitution, and a sure sign that the Rapture is already upon us?

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7 Responses

  1. dave says:

    Philadelphia’s full of parking quirks. There is a similar deal on Saturdays down in Society Hill near the SH Synagogue. And, of course, there’s the well-known South Philadelphia double parking norm.

  2. Adam Benforado says:

    Dave, quite right — but I’m just not sure that all parking quirks are equal. The religious privileges seem more problematic, don’t you think? Plenty of people speed on Walnut Street and never get a ticket, but that’s quite different than if the Philadelphia police decided to start not ticketing speeders who were on their way to church . . .

  3. TJ says:

    The devil here seems to be in the details. Lets say that the City has a policy of granting all non-residential property owners the privilege of issuing placards for parking on nearby streets. I take it no one would object if churches were included in this plan. Pushing a little further, the city might grant this special privilege only for enterprises that see sudden spikes in traffic, for example including sports stadiums, as a matter of temporarily increasing the parking capacity during peak demand. I don’t think that would be too problematic, either.

    What I gather is troubling is the possibility that this privilege is only granted to a religious entity, and specifically because it is a religious entity. But based on the facts above, we don’t know whether that is true.

  4. Adam Benforado says:

    Thanks for the note! I agree that the devil is in the details, but I think we know enough (even without a request for information from the City) to make some educated guesses about whether religious entities are being treated specially or whether this is the result of a neutral rule of general applicability. First, the state actor here was very firm that her official instructions were to ticket “after church let’s out,” not to ticket any cars which do not have an official permit or vehicles not subject to waiver. Second, from observation, it just seems unlikely that the city has a regulation in place to grant privileges to any “enterprises that see sudden spikes in traffic” or something similar. There are many business and groups in Center City that would meet such a definition and would love to offer their patrons and members free and close parking. I’m sure that the Kimmel Center (a performing arts facility right down the street from the Presbyterian church) would be interested in such a deal (perhaps they could increase ticket prices, if parking for concertgoers was effectively subsidized by the city). Likewise, I’m sure all of the bars would take the City up on such an offer on nights when the Eagles or Phillies are playing, as would any of the downtown shops and boutiques on busy Saturdays. And I’d expect my fellow faculty members would jump at the opportunity to park in front of the Law School on Market Street during our Wednesday faculty meetings rather than shell out for the parking garage as they normally do.

    Again, I think you’re right that we need more information to make a fair assessment, but, at this point, I think we have enough data to be at least “concerned” about the City’s practice.

  5. Dan Culley says:

    I think you’ve jumped the gun on this one a bit. This seems like a perfectly reasonable exercise of prosecutorial discretion. Your other examples of spikes in traffic don’t fit the other, nonreligious facts for the church’s case. For example, the church holds services on Sundays in the morning and early afternoon, when traffic volumes are extremely low. (As compared to a “busy Saturday” for shopping malls or the high-volume times when sports events are occurring.) The Church is also a nonprofit that does not charge for its services. (As compared to a concert hall, bars, or shops.)

    Unless you know of other similarly situated organizations asking for and being denied this arrangement, I wouldn’t get worried. Realistically, if you were successful in raising this concern, the city would probably get rid of the special arrangement, forcing the parishioners to find and pay for parking somewhere else, without really raising any money for the city or substantially improving traffic flow. So pretty much everyone would be worse off.

    I’m not a First Amendment specialist, but I also think you may be interpreting the Establishment Clause a little too strictly. There’s no evidence here that the city is intending to promote or specially benefit a religion through its conduct. The most likely explanation is that this church is a very powerful organization in that particular ward and that the alderman conveyed that importance to the parking administrator, resulting in the benefit. But that’s not because they are a church, it’s because they are politically powerful organization. The situation would be exactly the same if they were the Chamber of Commerce or an Elk lodge or something like that.

    If you want to bar all special government benefits to politically powerful organizations, I’m with you, but I don’t see this violating the Establishment Clause.

  6. Adam Benforado says:

    Thanks, Dan, for the comment! As I’ve got to turn back to grading (ugh), let me type up some very quick responses:

    First, I’d definitely contest the idea that everyone would be worse off if this concern were successfully raised. The obvious solution, as I suggested in the original post, is for the city to make the implicated streets open to parking for all on Sundays. Thus, everyone – whatever their beliefs and commitments – could have an equal opportunity to enjoy the pleasures of the weekend in Center City. Sure, this might mean that some churchgoers sometimes had to shell out for a lot or walk a few extra blocks, but their occasional loss would be a direct gain for other citizens.

    Second, as you suggest, the real test is whether a comparable nonreligious group with 300 or so members who wanted to meet in the prime area of town at least once a week would be granted a similar waiver. I guess I just can’t imagine that happening. No, I don’t think there are likely to be any “evil” actors here looking to secretly turn Philadelphia into a theocracy, but my hunch is that the church gets special treatment because it’s a church and people have been going to that church on Sundays for a long time. It just feels natural.

    On a side note, a couple of hours ago, a Philadelphia friend (and Co-Op reader) who happens to be a member of the congregation did offer to get me a placard if I shut my yap.

    As always, bribe accepted.

  7. Check out my new campaign, http://Www.wherewouldjesuspark.com

    We’re going to end parking in the Spruce St bike lane.