San Luis Obispo atheists say Sunday parking fee structure favors religion

City Council limited paid parking to afternoons at the request of churches; now a group of atheists says that decision violates the First Amendment

acornejo@thetribunenews.comMarch 22, 2012 

A San Luis Obispo atheists group is challenging the constitutionality of the City Council’s decision to not charge for parking downtown until church services have concluded on Sunday mornings.

Atheists United of San Luis Obispo says that the council violated the civil and constitutional rights of those not affiliated with a religious organization when it voted in July to only operate parking meters on Sundays from 1 to 6 p.m., not earlier in the day as suggested by city staff. The council made the decision in response to concerns from downtown church leaders that parking fees would be a burden on congregants who attend morning services.

The council enacted paid parking on Sundays to generate additional money to help fund a parking structure at Palm and Nipomo streets. The project has since been delayed until later this year because the city must first update signs throughout the downtown area with the new parking regulations.

After being contacted by the local atheists group, a lawyer from the Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote a letter to the city contending that the fees constitute preferential treatment toward religious organizations.

The foundation, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit that promotes the separation of church and state, claims that the council’s decision violates the First Amendment’s prohibition on government favoring religion. The letter cites case law to support its position.

The City Attorney’s Office responded with its own example of case law, and said city leaders had done nothing wrong. It maintains the new parking ordinance is within the law.

“Legal or not, it’s not fair,” David Leidner of Atheists United of San Luis Obispo said. “We are asking the city to make a fairer law.”

Leidner said the group’s eight-member board decided to challenge the decision, claiming it was made based on a special-interest exemption.

“We feel like it is our job to be a watchdog on these things,” Leidner said.

City staff sought feedback from five churches downtown on the issue before the council’s decision. It also sought feedback from the San Luis Obispo Downtown Association, which represents the interests of downtown businesses.

Three of five churches urged the council not to charge for parking until after noon, thereby allowing congregants to attend morning services without worrying about pumping change into meters. Mission San Luis Obispo asked that the council not charge for Sunday parking at all.

In 2006, the council decided against charging to park on Sundays after similar concerns were raised. Atheists United of San Luis Obispo, which was formed about a year ago and has 150 members, has asked the city to reconsider its decision and suggested several alternatives.

Those include charging for Sunday parking from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., as the city does on the remaining days of the week; redistributing the four-hour grace period to all the days of the week by starting meters half an hour later each day so that all motorists downtown would benefit; or using the $116,000 in revenue that would otherwise be collected to fund parking waivers for people in need.

City Attorney Christine Dietrick said there is no plan to bring the item back to the council for reconsideration. “Fundamentally the parking regulation applies equally to everybody in downtown irrespective of religious preference,” said Dietrick, adding that considering the views of the downtown churches was a legitimate part of the process.

“From our perspective, the fact that they are religious entities doesn’t entitle us to disregard their input into the process,” Dietrick said. “In fact, excluding that input because it comes from a religious organization would present a problem.”

Two council members, John Ashbaugh and Kathy Smith, were named in the letter written to the city by the Freedom From Religion Foundation because they specifically referenced their concerns to accommodate some of the churches’ request for a later enforcement time.

Ashbaugh said he wouldn’t change his vote on the issue.

“The reasons that we exempted Sunday morning from the usual parking rates had as much to do with our culture as with religious practices,” Ashbaugh said. “It was about acknowledging that there is a different rhythm of life downtown on Sunday mornings.”

Smith said she felt the atheist group had a point and that she didn’t want to “step on anyone’s constitutional rights.”

“I don’t think any of us really felt we were favoring the religious entities, but we did in fact listen when they sent their letters to us,” Smith said.

“Sometimes we get caught up in meeting needs of so many different people that, sooner or later, we are almost bound to leave someone else out,” Smith said. “I don’t know if we would bring the issue back, but I do respect their right to call it to our attention, and we should be listening.”

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter.

Sunday parking in San Luis Obispo

The Tribune is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service