Permit requirement for river baptisms spurs debate

A budding rift over the use of protected rivers and streams in south-central Missouri for baptisms is over before it really got started.

U.S. Rep. Jason Smith, R-Mo., raised concerns in a letter this week to Ozark National Scenic Riverways superintendent William Black about permits required for baptisms. The riverways is under the direction of the National Park Service, providing oversight for sections of the Jacks Fork and Current rivers, along with creeks and streams near those rivers.

“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 in the 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.“’

Black responded in a letter to Smith on Thursday saying the permit issue was a misunderstanding, and that he was clarifying policy to ensure that no permit is required, a response that Smith called “a victory for common sense.”

For decades, churches in the area around Salem, Mo., have frequently performed baptisms in the Current River, Sinking Creek and other waterways in the sparsely populated but scenic area. A preacher takes hold of the person being baptized and dips his or her head in the water, often while other church members, relatives and friends watch on or offer a prayer.

Dennis Purcell, 61, has been a member of Gladden Baptist Church in rural Salem since he was a child. Now, he teaches Sunday School there and is church treasurer. Baptism is a sacred ritual in the church, he said, but one that often isn’t planned.

“Many times when the Holy Spirit is working on Sunday morning, you baptize on Sunday afternoon,” Purcell said.

That’s where the permit issue became problematic. The riverways office since 2006 had a policy requiring permits for special uses, with a 48-hour notice policy.

Black said in an interview that three churches had requested, and been granted, standing permits, with the permit fee waived. Controversy was avoided until the Park Service closed vehicle access to the sandbar along Sinking Creek where Gladden Baptist held its baptisms. Church leaders wanted to take vans to the site so the elderly and mobility-impaired could participate in baptism events.

The riverways office then cited the need for a special-use permit to gain that access, a permit that technically requires 48 hours’ notice.

In his letter to Smith, Black said there was never intent to restrict baptisms or to require notice before they take place.

“We also share your concern for the continuation of this traditional use of the rivers,” he wrote in the letter to the congressman. “As of today the park’s policy has been clarified to state no permit will be required for baptisms within the Riverways.”

The Ozark National Scenic Riverways covers 134 miles of rivers. The Jacks Fork and Current are particularly popular among kayak, canoe and floating enthusiasts. It is the first national park area designated for protection of a river system.