Church Pastors Say Bike Lanes Infringe on Freedom of Religion
Gentrification is Pushing Old Churches Out
African American religious leaders in Washington, D.C. are saying the city’s plan to install more bike lanes beside their churches could infringe on their First Amendment rights to freedom of religion.
As more of the church congregations get pushed to the suburbs, the bike lanes could take away parking spaces they use on Sundays, according to a report from The Legal Forum (www.legal-forum.net).
Members of the church congregations in Northwest Washington, D.C. have been meeting with city officials recently asking that they be allowed to keep their parking spaces.
Among the religious leaders expressing concern is Rev. Dexter Nutall, pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church. The 900-member church is located in the Shaw neighborhood of downtown Washington.
Until recent years, the 115-year-old church was surrounded mostly by a residential community. With gentrification, the family houses are increasingly being replaced by office buildings, retail outlets and condominiums.
Meanwhile, city officials are seeking alternatives to the traffic congestion the growing urban population creates. Bike lanes, along with more public transit, are among the choices they are considering.
Many of the new residents moving into the neighborhood around New Bethel Baptist Church have little regard for the history of the churches, Rev. Nutall said.
These churches have been residents of these communities — not just residents but stakeholders — long before there was gentrification, he said. That is where a lot of the tension is taking place.
The proposal for bike lanes follows a restriction by the Washington, D.C. Department of Transportation limiting parking near the church to residents with permits. Again, many of the church’s members were shut out.
Rev. Nutall said the dispute extends far beyond bike lanes.
Lisa Rother,executive director of the Urban Land Institute - Washington, an educational organization that promotes sustainable communities, agrees. It’s happening in other places as well, she said.
As urban real estate becomes more valuable with the crush of new residents moving into cities, residential neighborhoods near downtowns are getting pushed out.
Meanwhile, some old churches are disappearing while others are adapting by striking up deals with real estate developers, she said.
The private companies develop the land in partnership with the church and the church gets a new facility within the development, Rother said.
One of them was First United Church of Christ, located about a mile from the White House. The church founded in 1865 was close to shutting down until it worked with a developer to build a 10-story office building on its site.
The church reopened in 2011 as the first floor resident of the building while office tenants worked on upper floors.
Rev. Nutall said he is exploring redevelopment opportunities while still protesting the city’s plan for bike lanes.
He supports church leaders who sent a letter recently from their attorney to the D.C. Department of Transportation that said the bike lanes intrude upon the churches’ constitutionally protected rights of religious freedom and equal protection of the laws.
Their opponents include the Washington Area Bicycle Association, which says church members still could use other transportation modes to go to church if the bike lanes are installed. Leaders of the association said during a recent public meeting that 12 bicyclists were hit by cars in 2014 on the stretch of 6th Street NW where the bike lanes are proposed.
D.C. Department of Transportation officials said they still are considering options for the bike lanes, according to spokesman Terry Owens.