An Olympia church is considering its legal options after the state of Washington denied its request to hold a baptism ceremony at a park on the grounds of the Capitol.
Officials at Reality Church had wanted to hold a barbecue and baptism last Sunday at Heritage Park.
The park, located on the grounds of the state Capitol, includes a 260-acre man-made lake. Church members had wanted to use a portable baptistery, not the lake. The Department of General Administration, the state agency that oversees the park, turned down their request stating that the proposed baptism service was a violation of the state constitution.
“We approved their permit for the barbecue, but our state constitution does not allow public grounds or funds to be used for religious ceremonies so we got advice from our attorney general’s office and we denied their permit for the baptism,” GA spokesman Steve Valandra told Fox News Radio.
The American Center for Law and Justice filed an appeal with the state on the church’s behalf, but it was denied. ACLJ attorney Jordan Sekulow said the state of Washington is treating Christians like second-class citizens.
“They’re basically saying the barbecue is just fine – but if you can’t baptize anyone,” Sekulow told Fox News Radio.
“It’s an outrage. GA (General Administration) is not precluding members of the Reality Church from exercising their First Amendment rights to express their religious beliefs or conducting a baptism ceremony at the church,” wrote acting director Jane Rushford.
“However, the use of public property for the performance of religious worship, exercise or instruction is prohibited under the Washington State Constitution.”
Article One of the Washington State Constitution provides that “No public money shall be appropriated or applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction, or the support of any religious establishment.”
Sekulow claims the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from suppressing or excluding speech of private parties. But the state refused to back down. “So now you’ve got a state saying this is too much religious activity so it’s not really speech anymore,” Sekulow said. “This violates the U.S. Constitution.”
“A baptism ceremony is a form of religious exercise and worship,” Rushford wrote. “And as such it would violate Article 1, Section 11 to authorize the use of state property for this purpose.”
Instead, the church held their baptism service at a local YMCA.
Sekulow said the state’s decision makes it “uncomfortable for Christians to use the facility in the future.”
“If they open up this property for people to use, they can’t ban religious groups from being able to access it and perform something like a baptism,” he said. He said the church will ultimately decide whether to sue the state but if they do, he predicted it could set a national precedent.
“Who is the state to decide what is worship and what isn’t,” he asked. “The state of Washington has taken the extreme approach to banning religious.”
Valandra said he believes the state is on solid legal ground.
“We feel we’re on good legal ground,” he said. “We have to abide by the state constitution.”
Todd Starnes is host of Fox News & Commentary and the author of "Dispatches from Bitter America: A Gun Toting, Chicken Eating Son of a Baptist's Culture War Stories."