ACLU sought policy change after ministers were told not to use park for baptisms

Following two weeks of controversy and threats of lawsuits from civil liberties groups, the Stafford-Fredericksburg Park Authority last night adopted a policy allowing religious activities in its public parks.
The debate over religion in the Falmouth Riverside Park in Stafford County surfaced on Sunday, May 23, when park manager Brian Robinson told Rev. Todd Pyle of Cornerstone Baptist Church that baptisms and other religious activities were not allowed in the park. Pyle 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 did not have written rules governing use of the park.
Pyle decided not to contest the ban, but Rev. John H. Reid of the New Generation Evangelical Episcopal Church soon announced plans to defy park officials by performing a baptism in the park on Sunday, June 6. The ACLU again acted, offering assistance to Reid and informing park officials that they must allow the baptisms to proceed.
“We had a productive conversation with the park manager last week, who assured us that the he would not interfere with religious activities in the park and that he would be seeking written rules to that effect from the Park Authority,” said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis. “We followed that conversation with a letter to Park Authority members in which we advised them to adopt rules prohibiting park officials from blocking activities based on their religious content.”
“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.”
A copy of the ACLU’s letter to the Fredericksburg-Stafford Park Authority is found at http://acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/20040610-Stafford-Park-Religous-Activities-III.pdf.

Contact: Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022

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