What started as a small baptism ceremony with cake and punch on a Stafford County beach has evolved into an international news event, with allegations that religious freedom is under attack in exurbia.

Two weeks after a park employee admonished a church group for holding a baptism on public property without a permit, municipal officials are rushing to clarify that the Fredericksburg-Stafford Park Authority does not discriminate against religious expression. Media from NBC to CNN to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. have called to find out what happened May 23 in the Rappahannock River that prompted threats of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union and a promise by the authority to craft -- for the first time -- a policy on how the parks are used.

The story began when about 50 people from Stafford's Cornerstone Baptist Church gathered two Sundays ago at Falmouth Waterfront Park, a stretch of beach popular with anglers, to baptize 12 congregants. After a table was set up with refreshments and six people had gone through the immersion ceremony, a park official approached to say the baptisms would have to stop, according to the Rev. Todd Pyle.

Brian Robinson, director of the authority's four parks, was called.

"He told us first of all they didn't allow people in the water because it's dangerous, and then he said, 'Actually, it's because it's a religious activity,' " Pyle said of Robinson.

In an interview this week, Robinson said his comments were "mischaracterized." He said he went on to tell Pyle that any organized group would have to seek the authority's approval for an event in the park. Religious events take place regularly in the parks, he said, including a sunrise Easter service a Lutheran church has held for 25 years, complete with a sound system and a large, rugged cross.

"There is no policy or ban that prevents religious activities or freedom of expression of any sort," Robinson said yesterday. "It has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with logistical management. If the Redskins showed up in Falmouth and announced they were having an opening game there, we wouldn't allow it unless there was talk before about a special permit."

The immediate storm has passed, and another baptism -- of one person -- is scheduled tomorrow on the Fredericksburg side of the river.

While the event brought to light the lack of a written policy about park permits, it also pushed to the surface some people's concerns about efforts to keep church and state apart.

"Most Christians for a long time have said, 'We can't do this or the other,' and have gone along with what society has told us we could and could not do, whether we have a constitutional right to do it or not," Pyle said. "Pretty soon, if someone sneezes and you say 'God bless you,' it's going to be a crime."

The ACLU and the Christian Defense Coalition spoke out almost immediately after the controversy became public.

Though outdoor immersion baptisms often conjure images of rural areas -- like those vanishing around greater Fredericksburg -- religious officials say such services are quite rare in the area.

Immersion baptisms can take place in a river -- like Jesus's in the River Jordan -- or in a swimming pool or, most commonly, in a special tub in the church called a baptismal. In some churches and denominations, baptism involves only a symbolic sprinkling of holy water. Some denominations believe in baptizing infants, while others wait until adulthood.

"Out of 100 churches around here, you may find one" that uses the river for baptisms, said the Rev. Joseph Henderson, pastor of a Fredericksburg charismatic church and president of the Fredericksburg Area Ministerial Association. Most churches, he said, have adopted the indoor tradition.

The Rev. John H. Reid, who runs New Generation Evangelical Episcopal Church for homeless and other needy people in downtown Fredericksburg, plans to baptize a young man tomorrow in the Rappahannock and said he has done the same for about 40 people in the past six years.

The biblical connotations of holding the ceremony in the river are important, he said, as is the community element of it: "Baptisms are supposed to be a public confession of your desire to follow Jesus," he said.

Robinson said the park authority's unwritten permit policy focuses on whether the group has "a specific structure," such as a business or a church, and whether the activity may affect other users of the park. An authority subcommittee has been appointed to research a written policy.

The key, according to the Becket Fund, a nonprofit group that defends religious freedom, is a religion-neutral policy on the use of public property.

"Often we see officials become scared that [religious expression is] somehow improper or doesn't belong -- like secondhand smoke," said Roman Storzer, the fund's litigation director. "But in those cases, courts regularly make the determination that you can't treat religious speech or activities differently just because it's religious."

Pastor Todd Pyle of Cornerstone Baptist Church of Stafford baptizes Mark Maynard in the Rappahannock River at Falmouth Waterfront Park.