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After Rural Churches Object, Federal Agency Drops Policy of Requiring Permits for River Baptisms

Ozark National Scenic Riverways in south-central Missouri clarified its policy this week to allow most baptisms without a permit
Jacks Fork River
This bend of the Jacks Fork River in south-central Missouri is known as "Baptising Hole." (Photo credit: Ozark National Scenic Riverways)

The waters were choppy this week between the Ozark National Scenic Riverways—which operates under the National Park Service—and church groups that perform baptisms along the Riverways.  As KSMU’s Jennifer Davidson reports, the controversy started when someone complained that the federal agency was requiring permits for baptisms in the river.

The New Testament in the Bible records the baptism of Jesus as taking place in the Jordan River. Today, many churches in the Ozarks, particularly in rural areas, emulate that act of worship by performing baptisms in the rivers and creeks nearby. So, when the Ozark National Scenic Riverways announced it was sticking to its policy of requiring a special use permit for baptisms, there was an immediate response.

Congressman Jason Smith, who represents Missouri’s 8th district of southern Missouri, said many of his constituents were…

“Absolutely outraged that some agency could control their religious activities,” Smith said.

The Ozark National Scenic Riverways also required two days’ notice for baptisms to be performed on its rivers and creeks.  While many churches schedule baptism services weeks or even months in advance, some don’t.

 “A lot of times, someone may decide to be baptized on a Sunday morning. And so, then they’ll go down and do the baptism service on Sunday evening.  And a baptism only lasts for a couple of minutes, yet no one needs a permit to go down there and swim in the river, which lasts a much longer time,” Smith said.

Smith said these are public waterways, and Washington shouldn’t be able to regulate traditions his area has held for generations. He wrote a letter to the Superintendent of the Riverways, Bill Black. The next day, Black wrote back to say the park’s policy had been clarified, and that, “no permit will be required for baptisms within the Riverways.”

The Ozark National Scenic Riverways runs along the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers, just northeast of West Plains in south-central Missouri. A spokeswoman for the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Faye Walmsley, says the “special use” permit policy was in place since 2006, and it covered far more than just river baptisms.

“Sports runs, or pageants, or regalia, any attractions, entertainment ceremonies, encampments, weddings,” Walmsley said.

Walmsley also said there were practical reasons for requiring the permit.

“[It’s] so there’s no conflict of activities in certain areas, and also so that it’s managed so it protects the natural and cultural resources of the park,” Walmsley said.

Walmsley says it was never the intention of the National Park Service and the Riverways to limit the number of baptisms.  Although permits will not be required for baptisms in general, Walmsley added that if a church wants to perform a baptism at a gravel bar that’s closed to vehicles, then that church will still need a special use permit to get access, which often requires a locked gate to be opened by a staff member.

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Davidson.