Church Parking for Atheists August 30, 2011

Church Parking for Atheists

Reader Nic shares this story (via email) about how Christians seem to get special parking privileges in Philadelphia:

I used to live just two blocks from Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, and I remember how the streets would fill with cars on Sunday mornings, all of them conspicuously parked in areas that would otherwise be off limits during the rest of the week (like, for instance, in one of the city’s few reserved bike lanes).

They would all have a neat little placard in the windshield stating the owner was attending church service, which would excuse their otherwise illegal parking. And this in spite of the fact that there is a large parking garage just two blocks from this church.

Evidently, the nature of the activity (worshiping) in itself warrants an exemption, or the church is provides such an essential service to the community that it has earned amnesty from the rules for its members.

So, if worshiping qualifies, what else would qualify, and who decides? Who hasn’t tried (and failed) to justify a parking ticket based on what they were doing when they got the ticket? I once got a ticket for parking illegally at my girlfriend’s front door for 5 minutes in order to drive her to the ER while she was having a seizure. I pleaded for amnesty. No luck. What if I’d said I was praying with her? I’m being facetious, of course, but it nevertheless remains that there’s an unspoken determination that worshiping is somehow universally noble, and practitioners should be treated differently. It’s the same prevailing bias which makes people respect a “man of god” as automatically good, moral and decent.

Chicago tried the same thing a while back, though I’m not sure if they won. It’s incredible to watch how pastors pretend like they’re not asking for unique treatment:

“We’re not asking for special privileges,” said the Rev. Philip Blackwell, pastor of First United Methodist Church at Chicago Temple. “We just happen to be religious institutions. The strange hours that we keep are complementary to the way the rest of the Loop gets used. If we’re going to co-exist in the city we have to have some nuanced understanding about how space is being used. That goes for government vehicles, bikes.”

If anyone has insight into this issue (in any city), I’d love to know what’s going on and why the local governments grant churches special treatment. Would attending atheist gatherings also qualify under the rules?

On a side note, some anonymous rapscallion created a website called — if you visit, you can print out a placard to put on your car on Sundays for free parking in parts of Philadelphia. The downside is you have to pretend to be a Christian for a couple hours.

It’s a clever idea, but we shouldn’t have to resort to this. Everyone should get the same exemptions or none at all.

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  • Maybe the church applied for parking permits for its members? I don’t see anything wrong with that, as long as any other individual or organization in the neighborhood could do the same.

  • I know in the 3 small towns I lived in NC didn’t have these cards but it is also the bible belt and there was plenty of parking, and churches were a dime a dozen .

  • Matto the Hun

    “The downside is you have to pretend to be a Christian for a couple hours.”

    Correction, your car has to pretend to be Christian for a couple of hours. You can go and be godless where ever the heck it is you are going.

    As for “a couple of hours”…
    I live in Atlanta in the city. There’s a church kitty corner to our building. The cars of the faithful clog the narrow side streets for most of the day. Well past church service, well past brunch after the service. Ain’t it great how the faithful and oh-so-highly-moral make crass use of their faith (which you can never ever ever ever question or criticize because it’s deeply held, blah, blah, blah) as an excuse to park where ever the hell the want, even if it makes the road narrow less safe? Bravo.

  • Sue D. Nymme

    It seems reasonable that police should give some latitude around any reasonable social activity that attracts a lot of people.
    It does not seem reasonable that bike lanes should be blocked, or ordinary traffic laws flaunted if there is reasonable, legal parking nearby.

  • Sue D. Nymme

    It seems reasonable that police should give some latitude around any reasonable social activity that attracts a lot of people.
    It does not seem reasonable that bike lanes should be blocked, or ordinary traffic laws flaunted if there is reasonable, legal parking nearby.

  • Anonymous

    In Boston where parking and parking enforcement is a blood sport I noticed that some cars had signs saying “Visiting Clergy”.

  • Milwaukee Brewer

    Milwaukee just excuses all parking meters on Sundays. This is particularly nice if you’re out having one too many drinks on Saturday night, and need to leave your car. [I’m not sure if the concession is for the church-goers or drinkers]

  • Kenneth Dunlap

    I’m tired of seeing megachurches let their parking lots sprawl into the surrounding area. It is not only inconsiderate, it has an actual cost to others. Also, police and sheriff deputies often serve traffic duty, yet the churches do not reimburse the departments for wasting the officer’s time, for hours each service and 4-5 services per week.

  • Erin W

    I’m a resident of Philadelphia.  The permits offered by the PPA do not cover this situation.  I have one for my neighbourhood, and the only thing it allows me to do is ignore posted time limits on designated blocks and exempts me from paying parking metres on those blocks.  I still have to obey all no parking and loading zone signs.  These church parking placards are an entirely separate arrangement.  No other organizations or residents get this deal, and non-residents don’t get to register for a permit at all.

  • Erin W

    The Ethical Society of Philadelphia (Humanist group) is allowed to use placards like this for its Sunday platforms.  I do not know if synagogues, mosques or other religious organizations have such arrangements for Fridays and Saturdays.  It’s definitely a case of churches getting special privileges, though, and the fact that they can block the bike lanes is particularly frustrating.

  • Man, I really want to see this tackled on the next season of Parking Wars!

  • FeepingCreaturism

    I am surprised by that. It is almost a proof that there is a god as there is a power which is higher than traffic police. 🙂

    But seriously: I cannot understand this. Why can’t people call the respective authorities and have the cars towed? In Germany that would have happened instantaneously and they are in less financial doodoo than the US… (on second, not so serious thought, this might be an explanation for that 🙂 )

  • Patrick Dunn

    How about printing up a bunch of flyers for an upcoming Atheist organization meeting (it doesn’t matter if there really is one) and slipping them under their windshield wipers each week?  Maybe add some language about the importance of looking at things from someone else’s point of view, so they know their placards have made them targets.

  • Big Fat Al

    Same reason Bingo is allowed. Bingo’s gambling. But churches do it all the time. You try and run a bingo game where you’re collecting money and see what happens!

  • Daniel Brown

    I live in Philly too – thanks for the extra information on this. I had no idea any of this was even going on!

  • (Disclaimer: This is complete and utter gossip, but somehow still germane to this discussion.)

    My favorite brunch place in town is just down the street from this church, and I know the staff very well (been going there 5+ years). Various staff members have told me that the post-service crowd (that same crowd that gets FREE parking) is not only rude, but also extremely cheap tippers.

    Which is neither here nor there–as I said, just gossip.  Still, it makes one wonder just how onerous the tithing requirement is (do Lutherans even tithe?) if they can neither afford parking nor tipping …

  • I’ve just moved away from Philadelphia

  • I’ve just moved away from Philadelphia, where every Friday night while walking home I would see cars parked illegally in the bike lanes along Spruce and Pine, particularly west of 3rd St and east of 6th. I believe there is a synagogue in that area, and many of its members seem to be from New Jersey (or at least their cars have NJ tags). I’ve witnessed many bicyclists cut off by cars because their dedicated lane was completely blocked. Living in that area, I understood that parking was at a premium, but it seriously pissed me off that people could just dangerously block a bike path because they were worshipping.

  • Victor Harris

    I have a friend that used to work at a place that shall not be named but is a chain with a piece of fruit in the name, and she said that Sunday is the worst day to work cause the church goers come in and rarely leave decent tips.

  • Victor Harris

    In San Francisco on Valencia street there is a church whose attendees weekly block the center westbound lane, where any other day you’d get towed in 5 seconds the city has granted them an exemption, I do not know if any other churches in the city have the same exemption.

    Besides being a baker (, I also Dj, mostly b’nai mitzvah’s and a frequent complaint of the congregations that I work among is that the cities are unwilling to give them the same exemption for their hours of service on Saturdays that christian institutions receive on Sundays (no city in the bay area, that I’m aware of, tickets metered parking on Sunday).

  • Anonymous

    I’m from Philadelphia, and there is a “house-front church” down the street from my parents’ house.  Their house is on a narrow bus and emergency route road, so there’s only parking on one side of the street.  However, when the church holds services on Wednesday evening (I have no idea why) and Sunday (all day! from around 7 AM to sometimes as late as 11 PM!), parishioners park half on the sidewalk and half on the street.  My parents used to call the local police precinct and the parking authority, but they would just drive by without giving any tickets.  The parishioners didn’t have special parking permits, but the PPA and the local cops did seem to believe that because they were at church, they could park anywhere they wanted.  I’m very interested to learn that this is something of a systematic problem.  (Of course, this church is also breaking numerous zoning laws and has repeatedly covered up the seize and desist sign, so the parking is the least of our concern.)

  • There doesn’t seem to be a good solution to this if the police or traffic authority will not intervene.

    You just know if the boot was on the other foot windows would be smashed and tires let down, but we seem to hold ourselves to a higher standard.

    Though I would be tempted to set off an alarm or twelve.

    I don’t see how this can be legal.

  • Fred Edwords

    A storefront church in downtown Washington D.C. was so badly clogging the curbs and roadway on Sundays with their parking and double parking that the police finally clamped down and some arrangement was made that allowed the street to become drivable again. So some stories do have happy endings if enough people complain long enough. Just don’t expect an unbiased sense of justice and fairness to prevail without a whole lot of pressure being applied first.

  • I imagine it is also something like what goes on on my town.  The only people who issue parking tickets are the meter maids (Real cops have more important things to worry about.) and the meters don’t apply on Sundays and after 18:00.  Since everyone knows this, they park like assholes during these hours, not just church people.  I imagine if there was something that attracted the same crowds that churches do, they would also go unticketed.

  • This makes sense if the city or residents get something from the church.  For instance, the college I attend has an arrangement with a near by church.  The church’s parking lot is available for student parking during the week when the church doesn’t really need it.  In exchange, on Sundays (when students are few) the church use’s one the universities parking deck.

  • I’ve  heard the same bit of gossip over on Retail Hell Underground. Good Christian church-goers really ARE the worst tippers and are insufferably rude.

  • Kaylya

    It’s one thing to provide an exemption for, say, a 1 hour parking area, but places that say “no parking” say that for a reason. Allowing parking in a designated bike lane for anything but emergency vehicles is stupid. Sunday morning isn’t generally the hardest time to find parking anyways.

  • Darkpassenger

    am Outraged as Assistant organizer of The Philadelphia Atheist Meetup
    Group I demand Special Atheist Meetup Parking out side the Cosi Coffee
    house and Midtown Diner II in Philadelphia.

  • Cromulents

     I am a resident of Philadelphia and live in a neighborhood that is filled with old churches and synagogues. Yes, it is slightly annoying that the believers get to park basically wherever they want on their day of worship, but I actually see it as a nice gesture by the city. The fact is the demographics of my neighborhood used to be very different (black and Jewish), and though those populations moved elsewhere in Philly or the area, their churches and synagogues have remained in their historic locations. It’s almost like a community outreach that allows people to maintain and participate in a part of their cultural history, even if they’re misguided for believing in sky man.

  • JrzyGrrl

    On the other hand, up here in Alaska (“we don’t care how they do it Outside!”), our big downtown Catholic chuch is whining about how city events are crimping their style:
    and yes, there are several large parking garages within 2 or 3 blocks of the place!

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