Park officials nix baptisms in river

Posted: Friday, June 04, 2004

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) The Rev. Todd Pyle thought it was the perfect spot to baptize 12 new members of his church the river was calm and shallow and there was a shaded area offshore for people to stand.

But officials at the Falmouth Waterfront Park just outside Fredericksburg weren't pleased. They tried to break up the religious ceremony, claiming it might be offensive to swimmers nearby or others using the park. After Pyle finished the baptism, he was asked to leave.

Now free-speech advocates are outraged and are threatening to file a lawsuit if the park refuses to allow future gatherings by religious groups, something the park admits it has no written policy against.

''These people are being discriminated against because of the content of their speech,'' said the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, who heads the Christian Defense Coalition. ''It's one of the most egregious violations of the First Amendment I have ever seen.''

Pyle said few people seemed to notice the small congregation during the 30-minute ceremony on May 23.

But park officials said religious groups seeking to perform a service in the park still need to apply for a permit or else gather under a shelter or inside an activity center.

''We don't want to tread on anybody's First Amendment or constitutional rights,'' said Brian Robinson, director of the Fredericksburg-Stafford Park Authority. ''What we try to discourage is anything not formally permitted that just sort of occurs spontaneously.''

Robinson said the park's board has formed a committee to examine its policy and put it in writing. If the church applies for the proper permit, he said it's ''certainly possible'' they would be granted permission to use the river for another baptism.

''This group just showed up and began their service,'' he said. ''We would have the same issue with the Washington Redskins showing up on our football field.''

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