D.C. Church Claims Bike Lane Would Violate Religious Freedom

A church in downtown Washington, D.C., is asserting that a proposed bicycle lane on its street would violate its free exercise of religion, a claim Americans United has challenged in a letter to city officials.

In a letter sent October 20 to the District Department of Transportation, Americans United refuted assertions by the United House of Prayer that installing a bike lane on 6th Street, N.W., the street on which the church is located, would violate the U.S. Constitution and two federal statutes that were designed to protect religious freedom.

Americans United takes no position on the placement of the bike lane, but it wrote the letter to respond to a growing trend by some houses of worship and religious groups that “religious freedom” gives them sweeping rights that may affect third parties.

“Indeed, there are likely many legitimate arguments on all sides surrounding the proposal,” observed AU’s letter. “We write simply to explain that the claim that the bike lane would violate religious liberty is not one of them.”

Observed Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, “Although the House of Prayer has a right, like all other residents on the street, to voice its opinion on the placement of the bike lane, it does not have veto power over the District’s transportation decisions just because it is a church.”

The 90-year old United House of Prayer has claimed that a bike lane near its property would violate its “religious freedom” because the lane would allegedly hinder traffic flow and parking in the area, making it more difficult for its members to attend the church.

Americans United dismissed the church’s constitutional claims, explaining that the placement of the bike lane does not target the church or its religious practice. Along with the United House of Prayer, numerous businesses, homes and other buildings along 6th Street, N.W., would be impacted by the addition of a bike lane.

The letter also refutes the church’s claims that the lane would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal law intended to prevent the government from substantially burdening religious exercise, and a similar federal law known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

The letter was written by Americans United Legislative Director Maggie Garrett.

Although a hearing has been held on this matter, no action had been taken by the city on the lane as this issue of Church & State went to press.