06/06/04 — Baptism bust: Zealous park keepers drive Christians out

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Baptism bust: Zealous park keepers drive Christians out

Officials of a public park near Fredericksburg, Va., have agitated everyone from the American Civil Liberties Union on the left to the Christian Defense Coalition on the right.

The officials caught a Baptist preacher holding a baptism in a river that flows through a public park. That’s unusual nowadays. Most Baptist churches, and others that immerse, have baptismal fonts built into their altars, and they can do their baptizing inside, in comfort, in all kinds of weather.

There was a time, though, that most churches held baptisms outdoors in streams. A hardy preacher with hardy converts might do it at any time of the year, even cold winter. But on a summer’s day, in a calm river like the Rappahannock where it flows through Falmouth Waterfront Park — that is an ideal time and place.

Some prayer and singing of hymns usually accompany the baptisms. In such a setting it is a peaceful and inspiring experience.

But there was no time for hymn-singing at Falmouth Waterfront Park on May 23. The park officials who came up on the baptism told the preacher, the Rev. Todd Pyle, to leave, along with his flock.

Pyle did. He said he hadn’t intended to make anybody mad.

Others let their frustration be known. Why, they asked, should the park run off a bunch of harmless Baptists?

Employees of the Fredericksburg-Stafford Park Authority said they were afraid somebody, such as nearby swimmers, might be offended by being subjected to the sight of a baptism — even though, of course, those being baptized were fully clothed.

Indeed, folks do seem to get offended more easily than they used to, but it is difficult to see how one person would be injured just by virtue of another person being baptized in his general proximity.

Of course, Falmouth is a public park and the government is not supposed to give favored treatment to people of a certain religion. So the question is whether the Christians were being treated differently from anyone else.

Both the ACLU and the Christian Defense Coalition of Virginia said the park violated the Christians’ right to free speech.

There is nothing in the park’s rules about this, so the park workers took matters in their own hands. The Park Authority would be wise to draft a rule to cover such situations. That way everyone could be treated alike, even by overly sensitive park employees with more power than judgment.

Published in Editorials on June 6, 2004 2:06 AM