Wash. State Denies Church Baptism Rights in Public Park

Correction appended

The pastor of the non-denominational Reality Church called a family-style meeting Thursday to explain to congregants why elders do not feel led to take legal action against Washington state officials who denied their request to baptize members at a public park.

Paul Jones and his elders agree, while they believe the Department of General Administration (GA) has been inconsistent in the application of the state's religious freedom laws, they want their church to be known for its good works in the community rather than what could have been a long, drawn-out legal battle against the state.

"To pursue legal action would be, at this point, a choice that we would potentially be making that would not allow the fullest pursuit of what we believe God called us to do which is to ... follow Christ, to make disciples, to love others and to impact our city with the gospel," Jones said.

On Thursday night, elders met with the church’s 300 members during their regular Thursday night dinner and discussed the decision.

The Olympia, Wash., church initially announced in a Tuesday blog post that a proposed lawsuit in conjunction with the American Center for Law and Justice had been indefinitely postponed.

The church first considered legal action when the state park system twice denied its request to host an August 14 barbeque and baptism at Heritage Park.

The GA approved the barbeque, but denied the Sunday baptism as it believed the ceremony would violate the state constitution's religious freedom clause.

"We approved their permit for the barbecue but our state constitution does not allow public grounds or funds to be used for religious ceremonies," GA spokesman Steve Valandra told Fox News Radio.

The GA also denied the church's appeal to the first decision.

Section 11 of the Washington State Constitution states, "No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction, or the support of any religious establishment."

The plainly written law did not keep local Christians and church members from expressing their frustration with the decision.

Bob, a commenter on the Reality Church blog, wrote, "You should have called it a dunking booth and no one would have cared."

Another commenter, Eileen, compared the church’s planned baptism at the park to a Hindu Krishna camp scheduled at Brooks Memorial Park in September. She wrote, "Okay for some & not for Christians?"

Jones told The Christian Post that he too believes the state does not consistently enforce its own rules. He said he has performed several weddings at the park where the brides and grooms took communion together and the ceremonies have never been challenged.

Still, he and church members says they did not choose the park to advance any political agenda despite several accusations. Rather, Heritage Park is three blocks away from the church and has been the site of previous church functions.

Reality Church, a recently established church, is putting the event behind them. They held the baptism on August 14, as planned, at the YMCA down the block from the church. Its barbeque was held at the church.

Jones says he hopes Reality Church will be known in the future for its work in nearby shelters and its other missionary efforts.

Correction: Friday, August 19, 2011:

An article on Thursday, August 18, 2011, about an Olympia, Wash., church and its attempt to hold a baptism service at a public park incorrectly reported that Reality Church’s baptism and barbeque was slated for Aug. 15. The baptism was scheduled for Aug. 14 and carried out as planned that day at a YMCA pool.