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In a stand-off between Baptists seeking to exercise their religious rights and the National Park Service, the National Park Service just blinked, backing off of a requirement that churches get a permit (a two day process) before baptizing people in public waters.
As Fox New’s Todd Starnes explains, the nature of Pentecostal or Baptist baptisms is that, when someone feels the call, he or she should be baptized immediately and publicly, as an expression and celebration of being Born Again. Or, as Dennis Purcell told The Salem News, “If the Holy Spirit is working on Sunday morning, you’re going to baptize Sunday afternoon, you may not know ahead of time.”
In Missouri, where this matter came to a head, people gather together on river banks to witness baptisms. As choir members sing hymns, the preacher leads the new believer into the water for a full immersion baptism. In terms of environmental impact, this temporary plunge into the river is about as minimal as one can get, an impact that is equal to, or even less than, the effect from swimmers, fisherman, or weekend frolickers who head out to the same waters for fun and sport.
Nevertheless, the Park Service recently began a new policy requiring churches that wished to hold baptisms in public waters to apply for a special permit at least 48 hours in advance of the baptism. The Park Service justified this recent demand by saying that the permits were necessary to “maintain park natural/cultural resources and quality visitor experiences, specific terms and conditions have been established.”
This 48-hour time bar, of course, runs directly counter to the religious tradition that requires immediate baptism if someone has embraced Christ. There’s nothing new in this belief, which dates back to the earliest days of Christianity, not to mention early American practices.
In Missouri’s Ozark Mountains, the Park Service went one step further: it closed the road that led to a sandbar abutting a popular baptism site. And when we say closed, we mean closed. The Park Service didn’t just put up a “No Access” sign on the roadway. Instead, it blocked the road with boulders. While young and healthy people can still hike to the sand bar, elderly people, whether they are congregants or new believers, can no longer get there.
On August 21, Rep. Jason Smith (Missouri, R) heeded the complaints of his constituents and wrote a letter to the NPS asking what the heck was going on:
I am very troubled by any federal rule that requires churches to apply for a permit for the purpose of baptism, especially when these traditional activities have been done in the rivers and streams of this nation since its founding.
Not content with citing to historical precedent for using the waters for baptisms, Smith noted that the NPS was not applying its permit demand impartially. For example, those who simply want to swim in those same waters, without any religious purpose, don’t need a permit. “One would hope,” Smith wrote, “that the answer is not because the National Park Service wants to limit the number of baptisms performed on the river.”
The Park Service’s first response was a typical bureaucratic whine about its needs, rather than the needs of the citizens whom it (theoretically) serves. Thus, the Park Service said the 48 hour permit process was to “give the park staff adequate time to prepare the permit.”
Between citizen outrage and Rep. Smith’s threat to bring the matter before the full Congress, however, the Park Service quickly reversed its new policy, writing to the Congressman that, “As of today, the park’s policy has been clarified to state that no permit will be required for baptisms within the Riverways. I can assure you the National Park Service has no intention of limiting the number of baptisms performed within the park.”
Bureaucracies are famous for being stupid and territorial. What’s disturbing here is that, even as the Park Service unconstitutionally enacted a policy that specifically attacked Christian worship, there is a rising, and equally unconstitutional, trend amongst local governments to bend over backwards to support Muslim demands for public places within which to express their faith. Todd Starnes has a short summary of just some of those government accommodations:
Universities across the nation are spending thousands of dollars to install foot baths so Muslim students can wash their feet before their five-times-a-day prayers.
The New York Times reported that the University of Michigan-Dearborn spent $25,000 to install the foot-washing stations in restrooms. The university defended the expenditure, claiming it was for health and safety measures, not religion.
A number of airports have spent public tax dollars to provide foot-washing basins for Muslim taxi drivers. One Arizona airport went so far as to provide prayer rugs.
And San Francisco International Airport renovated a building to create a house of worship for Muslim workers. Airport officials declined to reveal how much tax money was spent, but a spokesman told the San Francisco Chronicle they just wanted to maintain “a good relationship with ground transportation providers.”
The Founders wisely insisted that government stay out of the business of religion. This means both that the government cannot give undue accommodation to one religion over another (as is recently the case with Muslim worshippers) nor can it impose undue burdens on a religion or a practice that is an integral part of a specific religion (as the Park Service tried to do with full immersion baptisms). What we’re seeing now is a dangerous trend of American governments — at all levels — playing favorites with religions. That’s a very scary and un-American direction for governments to take.