Below is a press release from Atheists United of San Luis Obispo
In response to concerns raised by members of Atheists United of San Luis Obispo (AU-SLO), the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) warned the San Luis Obispo City Council in a letter that their decision to accommodate churches by delaying Sunday parking metering until 1 pm and foregoing an estimated $116,000 per year in revenue violates the US Constitution, Federal Civil Rights laws, and California state law. The City Attorney’s Office responded that the City is acting legally. AU-SLO is calling for a law that is fairer to the community as a whole.
To defray the costs of current and planned parking structures, the San Luis Obispo City Council voted on July 19 to charge for parking on Sundays. Downtown merchants supported this decision, as they expect it will increase parking space turnover and boost business. Moreover, spaces will become more available to handicapped parkers who can park for free in any open space. However, out of concern for downtown churches, on whose behalf a 2006 Sunday parking initiative had previously been shelved, the council decided to delay Sunday metering until 1pm rather than begin at 9am, the meter start time on all other days. Based on revenue estimates by Robert Horch, SLO Parking Services Manager, this delay will reduce expected parking revenues by over $116,000 per year.
Concerned members of AU-SLO met with SLO City Attorney Christine Dietrich to voice their concerns and also contacted FFRF about the issue. AU-SLO is a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing community awareness about the positive aspects of atheism. FFRF staff attorney Rebecca Markert subsequently sent a letter to the City Council on February 6 stating that parking ordinance #1566 violates the Establishment, Free Exercise, and Equal Protection clauses of the US Constitution and Federal and California Civil Rights laws by intentionally giving preferential treatment to religious organizations, failing to allocate benefits in an even-handed manner, and demonstrating a history of entanglement between government and religious interests. Markert cited as evidence the City Council’s solicitation of feedback specifically from five downtown churches, the city’s April 5 Parking Revenue Enhancement report which stated that a similar 2006 Sunday parking initiative had been rejected because of “opposition by the five churches in, or near, downtown”, and specific comments by Council Member Kathy Smith and Vice Mayor John Ashbaugh during council deliberations that they opposed a morning start time due to church services.
AU-SLO is calling for an ordinance that is fairer to the entire community. More equitable alternatives include charging for Sunday parking from 9am to 6pm as on every other day, redistributing the 4 hour Sunday exemption to all days of the week by starting meters ½ hour later each day of the week, or using the $116,000 that would otherwise go to the exemption to fund parking waivers for the underprivileged.
Assistant City Attorney Andrea Visveshwara responded to FFRF in a February 21, 2012 letter in which she argued that the parking law does not grant special privileges to churchgoers because anyone who parks downtown on Sunday mornings will benefit. She also claimed that legal precedent established that council members’ motives for making the law were irrelevant.
This issue has also been reported by Hemant Mehta, author of I Sold My Soul on eBay, on his “Friendly Atheist” blog.
David Leidner, (805) 727-3540, [email protected]