- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 1, 2004

A Fredericksburg. Va., minister says he will challenge restrictions on religious activity at a nearby public park by performing a baptism Sunday in the park’s section of the Rappahannock River.

“I’m not going down there to cause trouble,” said the Rev. John H. Reid, pastor of New Generation Evangelical Episcopal Church. “I’m going down there to baptize this young man who is mentally handicapped and has wanted to be baptized for six months now.”

Officials last week attempted to stop another church group from baptizing parishioners in the Rappahannock River at Falmouth Waterfront Park near Fredericksburg. The Rev. Todd Pyle, the pastor at Cornerstone Baptist Church, said the park director told his group that the park was off-limits for religious services.

“If the only reason we weren’t allowed to do what we were doing was because it was a Christian activity, then we were being discriminated against,” said Mr. Pyle.

The Christian Defense Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union have threatened a First Amendment lawsuit against Fredericksburg-Stafford Park Authority, which oversees the 11-acre park. And now the authority must decide by Sunday whether to allow more baptisms.

So far, park officials are standing firm, saying that Mr. Pyle has distorted the issue.

“This has been the craziest nonstory that we have come across in a while,” said Brian Robinson, the park authority director. “It has nothing to do with the religious aspect of [the baptism], it has to do with management of the park.”

He said religious services are allowed. In fact, church groups regularly hold such ceremonies as Easter sunrise services there. But an unwritten park policy requires a permit for any organized activity — and Mr. Reid will run up against that rule if he shows up on Sunday.

Mr. Robinson said a permit to use the park would also be required for a Washington Redskins training camp or a Tupperware party.

The policy is under review by the authority’s executive board, Mr. Robinson said, but a possibly more specific or written version is not expected to be ready by the weekend.

Mr. Reid, whose church caters to the poor and the homeless, has been planning Sunday’s baptism since winter and waiting for the river to warm up enough for the ceremony. He said that in the past six years he performed about 40 baptisms in the park without intervention by the park authority.

He said he was jolted by the authority’s decision May 23 to try to stop the baptism. But the minister refused to change his plans, and said he doesn’t know what will happen if park rangers try to stop the service.

“I guess I’ll just have to see at that moment in time what happens,” Mr. Reid said. “They are going to have a bunch of upset homeless people [who] are not going to be real happy to find out that their river is off-limits. They can swim in it, but they can’t be baptized in it?”

The Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition, said a move to block Sunday’s baptism would land the park authority in federal court.

“This is one of the most outrageous violations of the First Amendment that I have ever seen,” said Mr. Mahoney, a Fredericksburg resident who fights for religious freedom throughout the nation but found the baptism ban in his own back yard.

“It is analogous to telling someone they have to leave the park because they are African American or Latino,” he said. “You cannot allow someone to go into the Rappahannock River to swim or fish or tube and then say you can’t for a religious ceremony.”

The Virginia chapter of the ACLU likely will join the lawsuit if the park attempts to stop Sunday’s baptism, said Kent Willis, the group’s executive director.

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

He said the park’s apparent misstep 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.

“As often as public schools unconstitutionally allow state-sponsored prayers, they also are likely to prevent a student from bringing a Bible to school,” Mr. Willis said.

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