Follow up as to the baptisms in the park
VOLOKH at law.ucla.edu
Thu May 27 10:24:54 PDT 2004
It looks like there is a policy of prohibiting most public
religious activities in the park. Wouldn't that be unconstitutional in
a traditional public forum (which the park, though not the river, likely
is), even if there is no discrimination? But it would also be some
evidence that there does appear to be religious discrimination even in
the river use policy.
. . . Some who heard about the controversy say the rule may be illegal
and a form of religious discrimination.
"You can't treat religious expression in a public park any different
from any other kinds of expression," said Kent Willis, executive
director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia in Richmond.
Park Authority Manager Brian Robinson, who approached Pyle after
Sunday's baptisms, said the agency doesn't discourage religious
He said religious services, political rallies and private companies that
use the authority's four parks must confine their activities to a
reserved shelter or room so they do not interfere with other park
Active church services, such as baptisms and revivals, or anything that
"takes on a public persona that others would take offense or object to,"
are not allowed in the common areas of the parks, Robinson said.
"We don't have a problem with providing shelters, but we don't want
others to feel forced to endure someone else's religion," he said.
In addition to Falmouth Waterfront Park, the regional authority oversees
St. Clair Brooks Park and Pratt Park in southern Stafford and Old Mill
Park in the city.
Park officials have had situations in the past where groups came in, set
up tents and loud speakers for revivals and tried to promote their
particular message to others, he said.
Members of Cornerstone Baptist, who didn't inform park officials before
the baptisms, were passing out literature Sunday, Robinson said.
But the policy, which is not in writing, prompted debate last night
during an emergency meeting of the Park Authority board. . . .
Some board members were confused about the policy.
Tom Gordon, the authority's operations supervisor, said he thought
certain religious ceremonies--such as Easter sunrise services--were
permitted on a case-by-case basis.
Eric Olsen, the board's vice chairman, said he never understood that the
Park Authority had a policy on religious activities. Olsen proposed
creating a subcommittee to research the issue and report back when the
board meets next month. . . .
Yesterday, the ACLU wrote a Park Authority board member asking that the
agency assure the group that it has no ban on religious activities and
that it will allow baptisms at Falmouth Waterfront Park. . . .
"If a nonprofit swimming camp is doing the same thing, would it be
treated differently?" [U. Va. professor Robert O'Neil] asked. "If it's
discouraged, but not forbidden, then that's a problem."
Park Authority officials say they discourage swimming in the
Rappahannock River, but since the river is governed by state law, they
can't prohibit people from entering the water, Robinson said.
The first drowning of this year occurred Sunday, upstream from the park
just hours after the baptisms. Over the years, the Rappahannock near
Fredericksburg has claimed dozens of lives, including four drownings
during the summer of 2002. . . .
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