ACLU of Virginia Warns Park Officials Not to Discriminate Against Religious Groups

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
May 27, 2004 12:00 am

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Church Group Told that Baptisms Are Not Allowed in Falmouth Park


RICHMOND, VA — Based on news accounts that a riverfront park in Stafford County has banned baptisms and may be limiting other religious activities, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia said today that is has sent a letter to park officials seeking written assurances that religious expression will not be curtailed in the future.

“”The rules for religious expression in a public park are actually pretty simple,”” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis, “”because they must be the same as for all other activities. If the park rules allow people to wade and swim in the river, then they must allow baptisms in the river. If the rules allow groups to gather for cultural, social or political purposes, then they must allow religious gatherings as well. If the park allows the use of amplified sound, then religious voices have the same right to be amplified as other voices.””

The ACLU also sent a letter to the Rev. Todd Pyle of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Stafford County, who was told by a park official last Sunday that no baptisms were allowed at Falmouth Waterfront Park. Rev. Pyle had just baptized 12 church members at the park, briefly submerging them in the river, when he was informed of the prohibition.

The ACLU assured Rev. Pyle that he has the same right as anyone else to use the park and offered to assist the church use the river for baptisms in the future. The ACLU also offered to assist other religious groups that have been denied their right to use public parks.

The controversy over baptisms in the park surfaced on Sunday, May 23, when a park official told Rev. Pyle 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.

“”It all comes back to the fundamental rights of free speech and freedom of religion as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution,”” Willis said. “”If these rights are not protected in a public park, then one has to wonder where they would be protected.””

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