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DPW provided list of churches that are plowed

Plowing the church lots Wednesday, February 12, 2003
Another snowstorm over the weekend has further drained already depleted municipal snow removal budgets and there's more in the forecast. Businesses and families who pay to have driveways and parking lots plowed are also feeling the pinch.  It's been a good winter for ski resorts and snowplow drivers, but that's about it. Along with the heavy snows, a thorny political issue has returned this winter: the question of town plows being used to clear church parking lots. The issue last arose in 1997, when two Ashland residents sued over their town's snow-plowing policies. The American Civil Liberties Union joined the suit, which was settled when Ashland agreed to stop plowing out the churches and pay the ACLU almost $11,000 in legal fees. Framingham officials discussed the issue at the time, but didn't do anything about it. Framingham plows 22 church parking lots whenever it snows, at a cost estimated at $25,000 a year back in 1997.  Now the issue is back, raised by Harold Wolfe, a candidate for selectman, at a meeting last week. Plowing the church parking lots is a neighborly thing to do, and considering all the good churches contribute, most people don't begrudge them this service.  In most communities, the traditional practice is accepted without really thinking about it.

Only when you think about it does the illogic become clear.  The taxpayers are picking up the tab for a service a private organization would otherwise have to purchase on its own.  How is plowing the church parking lot different from paying its electric bill?  How is it different from paying a pastor's salary?

Yes, as some argue, the people who use the church parking lot are taxpayers. But the people who shop at a supermarket pay taxes as well, but we don't send town workers to plow out the shopping centers.  Nor are town plows sent to clear the lots of other nonprofit organizations.

As with most issues where religion and politics intersect, there are emotions at play here that can be distracting.  But giving taxpayer-financed services to churches doesn't really make Framingham more "neighborly" than Holliston, for instance, where churches make their own arrangements. And while it might be "neighborly" to have the town plow the driveways of selectmen, who, after all, give so much of their time to serving the community, that wouldn't make it legal or right.

No church will go out of business for lack of town snowplow services.  Parishioners can show their generosity when the plate is passed at church rather than with their votes at Town Meeting.  And the volunteers we expect will show up early with their trucks and snow-blowers on snowy Sunday mornings will say more about Framingham's sense of community than having DPW workers log a few extra hours every time it snows.

With state aid being cut and recession hurting municipal coffers, this will be a most painful budget season.  One way cities and towns can save a few bucks is to stop using public money for purposes neither legal nor necessary.  It's too late this winter to expect churches to contract for snow removal services, but before the snow melts, Framingham and other communities should adopt policies to drop this practice.  Church and state can survive just fine without the free snow-plowing.

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