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Church lots will not get free plowing Friday, March 21, 2003
D. Craig MacCormack Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- Selectmen last night voted unanimously to stop plowing church parking lots starting next winter, following the recommendations of Town Counsel Chris Petrini.

Petrini told town officials yesterday they could face court action for the long-standing practice, saying the only way to avoid legal trouble would be to expand the offer to other charitable groups.

Harold Wolfe, a critic of the board, has threatened to take the matter to the American Civil Liberties Union, saying it's an unconstitutional use of taxpayer money.

"No one has told us we can't do it, but it might not stand up if someone took us to court," said Town Manager George King.  "Even if we pay a church to use it as a polling place, it's still going to be a whole lot cheaper."

More than 20 religious institutions must now find other ways to move snow.  The only possible exception, said King, is part of the parking lot at St. Stephen's Church, where overflow parking from the Memorial Building is sent.

All affected church officials can appeal the town's decision, since many have already prepared their budgets assuming the long-standing practice would continue.  The deadline to make a case to King is Dec. 31.

King couldn't quantify how much it costs the town to plow church lots, but he estimated the cost to be $20,000 to $30,000 on average, and higher this winter.

St. Stephen's also lets the town use its parking lot for free on Election Day, and votes are tallied at St. Tarcisius Church and Wesley United Methodist Church.  The town pays to use the St. Tarcisius lot, said King, not Wesley's.

Several churches are also home to food pantries.

Special arrangements could be made, said King, to pay churches for town use, but the payments would very likely be significantly less than the costs of plowing the lots.

Some examples include plowing church lots when snow emergencies force cars off the streets.  It is unclear if the town must continue plowing the lot for the Framingham Community Charter School, said Selectman John Kahn, a lawyer.

In June 1997, Ashland paid $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 church parking lots.

The ACLU argued the plowing violated the constitutional separation of church and state.  Ashland was spending up to $20,000 annually.

Ashland's situation sparked a conversation about plowing church lots in Framingham in November 1997.  Then-Department of Public Works chief John McMahon estimated the plowing cost the town about $25,000 per year.

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