A decision by the superintendent of Missouri’s Ozark National Scenic Riverways requiring churches to obtain a special-use permit to baptize members in the park’s waterways has been rescinded following the intervention of a Missouri congressman.
The waters became troubled when members of Gladden Baptist Church in Salem, Mo., were unable to access a section of Sinking Creek where they had been baptizing converts for nearly 50 years. In that time, members of the congregation would accompany the pastor and baptismal candidates to the water’s edge to participate in the service. The elderly and mobility-impaired were taken to the sandbar site in vans.
This all changed when the Park Service placed large boulders blocking the sandbar to vehicle traffic, including wheelchairs.
Faye Walmsley, ONSR’s public-information officer, told the Salem Times a special-use permit has been a requirement for all First Amendment activities – public demonstrations, press events, religious services – for the past 25 years, but “we have just never actively used the authority until 2006.”
Even so, enforcement of the policy was largely targeted at preventing scheduling conflicts, such as two weddings showing up on the same day at the same location.
When life-time Gladden Baptist member and Sunday School teacher Dennis Purcell, 61, contacted ONSR Superintendent William Black, he was told the boulders would stay and the church’s baptisms would require a special-use permit.
“To maintain park natural/cultural resources and quality visitor experiences, specific terms and conditions have been established,” Black said in a letter to Purcell.
At the time, Black promised to streamline the process with a master application for permits valid for seven days. This week, Walmsley said in the future churches would be given an exception and their permits would be good for one year. While there would be no fee for the permits, churches would be required to give two business-days notification to use the park site for baptisms.
That two-day notification is a conflict for members of Gladden Baptist.
“If the Holy Spirit is working on Sunday morning, you’re going to baptize Sunday afternoon. You may not know ahead of time,” said Purcell.
The streamlining “doesn’t really change anything,” Purcell said. “They told us they were going to respect our traditions and heritage, and they haven’t done any of that.”
That’s when Purcell contacted Rep. Jason Smith (R-Salem).
“Why does the use of the river for a baptism, a simple service that may only take a matter of minutes, require a special-use permit?” Smith asked Black in a letter on Wednesday. “One would hope that the answer is not, ‘Because the National Park Service wants to limit the number of baptisms performed on the river.'”
By Thursday, the Park Service had rescinded its policy.
“We have closely reviewed the National Park Service Policy and have determined that as superintendent I have the option to require a special-use permit for baptisms and other activities within the park,” Black wrote.
“We have reviewed our past practice of issuing special-use permits and determined that I have the flexibility within agency policy to allow the baptisms without a permit.
“We also share your concern for the continuation of this traditional use of the rivers. As of today the park’s policy has been clarified to state that no permit will be required for baptisms within the riverways,” Black concluded.
“Today’s decision by the park service is a victory for common sense,” said Smith in a press release. “The notion that permits would be required for baptisms on our riverways is ridiculous. I appreciate (ONSR) Superintendent Bill Black’s quick response to my request to rescind the permit requirement, and I want to continue working with him and the folks who live along the rivers to preserve our traditions and rural way of life.”
The Ozark National Scenic Riverways covers 134 miles of rivers, including the Jacks Fork and Current Rivers. It is the first national park area created to protect a river system and receives about 1.5 million visitors a year.