For as far back as anyone can remember, Missouri Baptists have gathered on river banks for Sunday afternoon baptisms.
The preacher leads the new believers into the water, draped in white robes as a choir sings, “Shall We Gather at the River.”
It’s the way it’s been done for generations – baptizing in creeks, lakes, and rivers “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
But now the long-cherished tradition of “taking the plunge” has been drawn into a controversy with the federal government.
The National Park Service began enforcing a policy recently that required churches to obtain special use permits in order to baptize in public waters. As part of the same permit process, the NPS also mandated that churches give the Park Service 48 hours advance notice of pending baptisms.
But as any Baptist or Pentecostal in good standing knows – that’s a problem.
“If the Holy Spirit is working on Sunday morning, you’re going to baptize Sunday afternoon,” Dennis Purcell told The Salem News. “You may not know ahead of time.”
Many Christians believe that the Bible commands new followers of Christ to be baptized immediately after their conversion. It’s a public expression and celebration of their new-found faith in Christ.
The National Park Service told local churches the permits were needed to “maintain park natural/cultural resources and quality visitor experiences, specific terms and conditions have been established.”
The feds also closed vehicle access to a sandbar along a popular creek in the Ozark Mountains, meaning churches could no longer drive their elderly members to the outdoor baptisms. And to make sure the Baptists behaved, they placed large boulders in the area to block car traffic.
“Like the Baptists and Pentecostals are going to harm natural resources and adversely affect quality visitor experiences by occasionally baptizing new converts?” asked local resident Lewis Leonard. “I can think of a whole lot more activities along the river ways that are not conducive to maintain the natural resources.”
Rep. Jason Smith fired off a letter to the feds on Aug. 21 demanding answers.
“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,” the congressman wrote.
He pointed out the National Park Service does not require a 48-hour notification from fisherman or swimmers – so why churches?
“One would hope that the answer is not ‘because the National Park Service wants to limit the number of baptisms performed on the river.”
The Park Service responded within 24 hours. They said the reason they needed two days notice is to “give the park staff adequate time to prepare the permit.”
But based on local outrage – and Rep. Smith’s promise to bring the matter before Congress, the Park Service had a change of heart.
“As of today, the park’s policy has been clarified to state that no permit will be required for baptisms within the Riverways,” Supt. William Black wrote in a letter to the congressman. “I can assure you the National Park Service has no intention of limiting the number of baptisms performed within the park.”
Rep. Smith called the decision a “victory for common sense.”
“The notion that permits would be required for baptisms on our riverways is ridiculous,” he said.
It’s not the first time government officials have tried to discourage public baptisms.
In Olympia, Wash., a church was denied a permit to hold a baptism at Heritage Park a few weeks ago. Their request was rejected because the attorney general said the religious sacrament was a violation of the state constitution.
In 2011, a church’s beach baptism was shut down by lifeguards in Miami.
But while the government cracks down on public expressions of the Christian faith, they are embracing public expressions of the Islamic faith – many times at taxpayer expense.
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.”
So there you have it, good readers. Our government increasingly affords accommodation to the Muslim faith, while attempting to regulate the Christian faith.
It reminds me of something John Adams once wrote: “Nothing is more dreaded than the national government meddling with religion.”
Todd Starnes is host of Fox News & Commentary, heard on hundreds of radio stations. His latest book is "God Less America: Real Stories From the Front Lines of the Attack on Traditional Values." Follow Todd on Twitter@ToddStarnes and find him on Facebook.