By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 17, 2006; B06
The District plans to issue tickets to illegally parked cars outside a cluster of downtown churches beginning in May as it undertakes a citywide review of a long-standing practice that police and traffic officials have largely ignored.
The city's Department of Transportation may also let congregations apply for permits that would allow their members to double-park during services -- a proposal that is provoking criticism.
This week, the agency caused confusion with an announcement indicating that the District would ticket double-parked cars outside congregations across the city.
Bill Rice, an agency spokesman, acknowledged that the statement should have specified that enforcement would begin in Logan Circle, where residents have protested congregants' parking. He also said police would ticket in the neighborhood around Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, where the agency has created extra parking for baseball crowds.
Rice said the District government may step up enforcement elsewhere if residents from other neighborhoods or officials complain about the illegal parking.
The agency, he said, does not want to begin penalizing congregants without first seeking to create more parking. "We will be working with whomever comes forward," he said.
The District is home to more than 600 congregations. Every Sunday, large numbers of worshipers descend on neighborhoods around 16th Street NW, as well as from Capitol Hill to Shaw, with many blocking hydrants or walkways, or hemming in other cars by double-parking.
Police acknowledge that for years they have basically overlooked the practice, particularly when there was no safety violation. But a protest from residents in Logan Circle -- where many new home and condominium owners live -- prompted the city's review.
Todd Lovinger, a Logan Circle resident who has led the opposition to the parking infractions in his neighborhood, dismissed the proposal to issue permits as a way to allow churchgoers to continue parking illegally without penalty.
"They're trying to make it appear that they're doing something, but they're allowing an exemption that nullifies what they're doing," Lovinger said. "It's a giant loophole."
Lovinger called the proposal "unconstitutional" because "it exhibits a bias to one religion, namely the Christian churches that assemble on Sunday. Jewish congregations have the same problems on Friday and Saturdays, but the District is not addressing that."
Rice said the transportation agency is "happy to work with" any religious institution and community enduring a similar parking crunch. And he countered the complaint that parking permits amounted to a loophole, saying applicants would have to testify before the agency's Public Space Commission, which would decide on issuing exemptions.
In Logan Circle, the residents' protests over parking have prompted anger among some members of Metropolitan Baptist Church and Vermont Avenue Baptist Church, the largest of the four congregations in the area.
The congregants argue that residents should be understanding of a relatively minor inconvenience once a week. But residents complain of illegally parked cars blocking them in during weekday funerals as well as Sunday services.
After meetings involving residents, clergy and District officials, the transportation department has come up with a plan to create dozens of parking spaces in Logan Circle by allowing angled parking along portions of Vermont and Rhode Island avenues.
Police will begin placing warnings on illegally parked cars toward the end of next month, Rice said. They will start issuing tickets in mid-May, he said.
The Rev. H. Beecher Hicks, pastor at Metropolitan Baptist Church, applauded the District for refraining from stepping up enforcement until after Easter and Mother's Day, and for its plans for additional parking spaces.
But he said the officials have not found far-reaching solutions to the problem of overcrowding, and he suggested that the predicament will worsen as downtown development continues.
"God is not creating new terra firma, you know?" he said.