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Should Framingham plow church lots? Sunday, February 9, 2003
D. Craig MacCormack Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- When a town-owned plow rolls through a church parking lot after a snowstorm, does it cross the line between the separation of church and state by clearing a path for worshippers to attend service?

Town officials are looking at that very issue, and could face action from the ACLU if they're found to be in violation.  That may mean that 22 lots at religious institutions in town will have to find other ways to move snow.

"We've been asked by a few people to look at it, and we're doing that," said Town Manager George King.  "It's not something we would stop in the middle of the winter.  It's a policy issue and something we need to look at.

"It's not an insignificant amount of plowing and it does cause us some operational issues. We've done it for many years, but I'm sure it's something we'll look at again given the fiscal constraints of the town," he said.

The issue took center stage at this week's selectmen's meeting when political activist Harold Wolfe took exception to the practice, which extends back several decades.  Selectmen would have to vote to change the current policy.

"When I first heard this, I thought it was a hoax," said Wolfe, adding that he plans to call the ACLU.

In June 1997, Ashland handed over $10,853 in legal fees to the state American Civil Liberties Union, which successfully sued the town on behalf of two anonymous Ashland residents over plowing of church parking lots.

The ACLU argued that the plowing violated the constitutional separation of church and state.

The town was spending from $10,000 to $20,000 annually to plow the lots.

ACLU staff attorney Sara Wunsch estimates a trial would have cost Ashland from $60,000 to $100,000 in legal and settlement fees.  She wasn't familiar with Framingham's plowing situation or the reason it cleans lots with town plows.

"If they're making this a special favor for the churches, then it's (the same as) the Ashland case," said Wunsch.  "It's like giving money to a church that you're not giving to others."

Ashland's situation sparked a conversation about plowing church lots in Framingham in November 1997.  Then-DPW Chief John McMahon estimated the plowing cost the town about $25,000 per year.  No resolution was reached in the talks.

Town Clerk Valerie Mulvey, a selectman at the time, said she would like to set up a "quid pro quo" arrangement whereby the free plow would be formally recognized as a payment for the free parking.

St. Stephen's Church, she said, lets the town use its lot for free on Election Day while voting is staged at St. Tarcisius Church and Wesley United Methodist Church. Several churches are also home to food pantries, she said.

"I realize this is an issue, and becomes even more of an issue in a tight budget year, but I see the benefit that comes the other way," said Mulvey. "I would hate to lose all of what they provide the town free of charge."

Peter Sellers, the town's new DPW head, is working out the cost of plowing church lots, which are also sanded and swept by the town free of charge.  In addition to that work, town trucks handle 26 schools and municipal lots.

"I think we're already pretty burdened as it is," said Sellers.  "The responsibility remains the same, but the personnel has been reduced.  It's just one more item that keeps us from the priority of the roadways and sidewalks."

Sellers, who boasts about 30 years in the business, has never worked in a town that plows church parking lots for free, he said.

"Obviously this is another challenge for us," he said. "I worry (an ACLU lawsuit) could happen here.  It's a policy decision the DPW shouldn't make on its own.  It's a matter of where the town wants to expend its resources."

The Traffic and Roadway Safety Committee was working on an arrangement with churches to let residents park in their lots during storms, said Selectman John Kahn. He said that move would unclog some of the congestion for the plows.

"Mr. Wolfe has every right to raise the issue," he said.  "But I think we get the benefit of having open parking lots for people who can't park on the street or wouldn't be able to be near their place of worship."

Selectmen Vice Chairman Charles Sisitsky, who works as Natick's DPW chief, said Framingham's practice "goes back a long way in history."  He asked King to analyze how much time, money and effort is spent and report to selectmen.

"Obviously someone at some point thought there was a benefit to it," said Sisitsky. "We need to think about whether we can afford to continue it.  We need to be pro-active about it and analyze the whole situation."

The Rev. Carol Ann Parson, pastor of Wesley United, calls the flak over town plowing, "a bit surprising.  The whole question of church and state has to do with not imposing a certain way of being.

"We don't live in a theocracy.  We live in a democracy.  The rest of it is subterfuge.  It's a very nice thing for the town to do, just as I think we are very good citizens," she said.

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