FFRF raises alarm in Ill. over parking discrimination

Henryk Sadura

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is warning an Illinois city against giving unconstitutional parking privileges to a religious organization during an upcoming event.

The city of Rockford is planning to waive a $5 per day parking fee during the Jehovah’s Witnesses Convention — which will take place in the city on July 28-30, Aug. 4-6 and Aug. 11-13. The event will attract nearly 15,000 attendees and the fee waiver will exempt visiting Jehovah’s Witnesses from paying an estimated $48,750 over three weekends.

The event will feature “scriptural lessons” and talks aimed at “show[ing] how to apply Bible principles to everyday life.” Alderwoman Venita Harvey voted against the fee waiver, reportedly saying, “It’s just wrong. . . . When do Rockford taxpayers get a break?” FFRF is unaware of other conventions or events having received similar discounts on parking.

FFRF sent a letter expressing concern over Rockford’s discriminatory fee waiver in support of a religious event for visitors of a specific religious denomination. Noting that such apparent religious endorsement is constitutionally problematic, FFRF is requesting written assurance from the city that it will charge its ordinary parking fee during the Jehovah’s Witness Convention.

“When the city gives a discretionary fee waiver to a particular religious denomination’s gathering, it appears to endorse that denomination and religion in general,” writes FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne. “Supporting a ministry and giving preference to a religious denomination is exactly what the city does when it waives ordinary fees to support the Jehovah’s Witnesses Convention.”

Almost all who benefit from the waived parking fees will be members of the Jehovah’s Witness denomination of Christianity. Providing a financial favor to this religious event sends out a clear message on behalf of the city that it prefers Christianity over other religions and religion over nonreligion. In his letter, Jayne notes that this excludes almost one-quarter of Americans who are not religious.

“Rockford impermissibly ostracizes secular and non-Christian members of its community by offering a monetary privilege to visitors with a religious agenda,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “This is not only a violation of the U.S. Constitution, but hits the tax base of the community.

FFRF is demanding that the city not grant fee waivers or other financial benefits to attract or support religious events and the spreading of religious ideologies.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 29,000 members across the country, including more than 900 members in Illinois and a local chapter, the FFRF Metropolitan Chicago Chapter. FFRF’s purpose is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Photo via Shutterstock by Henryk Sadura

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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