- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 10, 2004

The Fredericksburg-Stafford Park Authority, bowing to pressure from religious rights groups, has reversed a policy that banned baptisms in the Falmouth Waterfront Park’s section of the Rappahannock River.

The authority, an independent agency funded by the two localities, adopted on Wednesday a new park-use policy that prohibits discrimination against any group based on the nature of its activity. The policy still needs to be put in writing, and park officials are working on the wording.

“Wisdom and justice have prevailed here,” said the Rev. Todd Pyle, who found himself at the center of the religious-freedom debate last month when park officials attempted to stop him in the midst of performing a baptism in the river.

“In society today, so many rights have been restricted, particularly for Christians, that this is a positive step in the right direction,” said Mr. Pyle, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church. “We will be afforded equal rights to other groups.”

He plans to baptize four parishioners in the park this Sunday.

“We will be able to utilize the river the way the Lord would have us,” he said.

Mr. Pyle’s confrontation with park officials May 23 prompted the Christian Defense Coalition and other religious rights groups to threaten a First Amendment lawsuit against the authority, which oversees the 11-acre public park.

The Washington Times reported last week that another Fredericksburg minister planned to challenge the ban by holding a baptism ceremony last Sunday, but the service was postponed because of rain and rough river conditions.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia (ACLU) also was expected to join the federal lawsuit if the park tried to stop that baptism.

“The bottom line is that they have to treat religious activity the same as they would any other activity,” said Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia ACLU. “If they allow people in the water to swim, then they must allow baptisms.”

Park officials last week appeared to be standing firm behind an unwritten policy that prohibited use of the park for any organized activity without a permit. Brian Robinson, the park authority’s executive director, said Mr. Pyle had distorted the issue.

But the authority’s board of directors changed gears Wednesday night and adopted the new rule, clearing the way for baptisms.

“It’s positive that they recognized that religious liberty was being crushed,” the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition. However, he said it was unfortunate that it took the threat of a lawsuit and public outcry for the authority to reverse its decision.

Mr. Mahoney said the park authority had invited his group to help draft the new policy.

“We are going to watch very carefully to see that people who express their religious faith are not held to a different standard,” he said.

Eric Olsen, vice chairman of the authority’s board of directors, told the Associated Press that it never intended to restrict religious practice, but might have gone “too far” enforcing an informal policy about church activities in the park.

However, Mr. Robinson, the authority’s executive director, said yesterday that the unwritten policy never discriminated against religious services.

“The inclination was that we didn’t do enough to clarify [the policy],” he said. “It is just a matter of determining what activities meet the threshold of permitting.”

The ACLU’s Mr. Willis said that the park’s ban was not unusual and that officials often get mixed up when it comes to the Constitution and religious expression.

“What we find is a lot of confusion among public officials who have difficulty distinguishing between the free exercise of religion and the separation of church and state,” Mr. Willis said. “As often as public schools unconstitutionally allow state-sponsored prayers, they also are likely to prevent a student from bringing a Bible to school.”

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