The controversy over baptisms in the park surfaced on Sunday, May 23, when Robinson told Rev. Todd Pyle of Cornerstone Baptist Church that religious activities were not allowed in the park. Pyle was in the park at the time and had just performed a series of baptisms in the Rappahannock River, which borders the park.
The ACLU of Virginia immediately informed Pyle that he had a constitutional right to conduct baptisms in the park and threatened to challenge in federal court the Park Authority’s ban on religious activities. The ACLU also discovered that the Park Authority does not have written rules governing use of the park.
Pyle decided not to contest the ban, but early this week Rev. John H. Reid of the New Generation Evangelical Episcopal Church announced plans to defy park officials by performing a baptism in the park this Sunday. The ACLU again acted, offering assistance to Reid and informing park officials that they must allow the baptisms to proceed.
“We had a very productive conversation yesterday with Park Manager Brian Robinson,” said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis. “By the end of the talk, it was clear to us that Robinson would allow the baptisms to proceed, thereby avoiding a lawsuit.”
“This kind of confusion over religious expression in public places is not uncommon,” added Willis. “Government officials often seem not to understand that private religious expression is protected in public forums. Afraid of violating separation of church and state by permitting religious activities, they end up obstructing freedom of religion.”
“The rules are really very simple,” added Willis. “Government officials merely need to make sure that religious activities have the same rights as any other activities in a public park. If swimming is allowed, then baptisms must be allowed. If groups can gather for sports or cultural activities, then groups can gather for religious ceremonies.”
“The key to avoiding these kinds of problems is to have reasonable written rules regarding the use of the park and to apply those rules equally to all users, whether their activities are secular or religious. We have offered to help park officials write those rules.” said Willis.
Contact: Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022