By Trevor Busch
Complaints requesting the removal of benches promoting Taber Pro-Life in the local cemetery have been dismissed by town council, following a 5-2 split vote.
The benches in question have been in place for approximately eight years on concrete pads on the north side of the cemetery, and have the words “Taber Pro-Life” inscribed in large lettering on their edges, which can be easily observed by individuals visiting that area of the cemetery.
Both have been the subject of at least two complaints from individuals visiting the cemetery, who objected to political messaging being located on town property.
The names of both individuals who submitted complaints to the town regarding the benches were not released publicly by the Town of Taber in their Aug. 17 agenda package. One of the complaints was received in late 2014, while the most recent was in July 2015.
In the case of one of the complaints, the written document was included in its entirety:
“I recently went to the Town of Taber cemetery to visit my mother’s grave and was quite disappointed and frankly a bit angry when I saw benches with ‘Taber Pro-Life’ in big block letters. I have two concerns in regards to the benches. Advertising at the cemetery: I do not think it is appropriate to allow any sort of advertising at the cemetery. No exceptions. In fact I find it rather offensive. The cemetery is a solemn place and should be treated accordingly. Political statements of any kind on town property: The town should be neutral on all political issues. By allowing signs from one group, it is implying that the town, and therefore, the people of the town, support that group’s cause. This is inappropriate.”
“I expect the Town of Taber to immediately remove the two benches. They can certainly be put back in place once the lettering is gone, but in the meantime they must be removed.”
The remaining complaint received was included as a paraphrased memo regarding a phone call received by town administrative assistant Lori Farough. Farough’s account indicated a female visitor to the cemetery had noticed the benches in question, which made her feel “uncomfortable and uneasy”. The complainant also related she considered this to be advertising and did not approve of the location.
According to administration in their Request for Decision, “Taking positions on moral issues that are ultimately not decided at the municipal level puts the town at risk. In the Canadian government system and the Constitution Act, 1982, there is the underlying premise that people are to be treated equally and that the church and state are separate, hence the recent Supreme Court decisions on such matters as having prayers in council meetings. Allowing the benches to stay will open the door to a court challenge that the town would likely lose.”
Before discussion even commenced on the issue at town council’s Aug. 17 regular meeting, Mayor Henk DeVlieger made an opening statement in which he contested some of the information pertaining to the nature of the Taber Pro-Life organization that had been asserted by town administration.
“I just want to make it clear that Taber Pro-Life is not a religious organization. So the comparison there is kind of wrong. Taber Pro-Life, or other pro-life organizations — any religious denomination, atheist, or agnostic, can belong to that. They celebrate and promote life from the beginning to natural death. I just want to make clear that justification is not quite right.”
CAO Greg Birch attempted to explain that a separation of church and state was not really the main issue, but rather the setting of a precedent which would make it difficult for the town to refuse other political advertising on town property if the benches were allowed to remain.
“The issue isn’t so much the benches that are there right now, it’s the idea that if you say yes to a bench of this nature, you’ll have a hard time saying no to any other benches with a different slogan on them. Then you might have a hard time saying no to any group you might not want there.The only thing you might be able to say no to is groups that might promote hatred or terrorism. Apart from that, if somebody else applies to donate a bench with very similar markings, we’d probably have to say yes. That’s what I was trying to get across in the justification.”
Birch’s reasoning appeared to be largely ignored by a majority of councillors, including Coun. Randy Sparks, who criticized a recent Supreme Court ruling banning religious observations from municipal council chambers.
“I found this very interesting, to say the least. Just because somewhere in Ontario a judge or some level of government passes a law concerning this doesn’t mean that it’s right. I do not consider these benches or the inscription as advertising. They were donated to be used by individuals visiting the cemetery. It is very unfortunate that people are offended by the pro-life inscription on these benches.”
Sparks went on to note that when initially installed, the benches were not intended to be a political statement but rather an identification of the donating party.
“These benches were not donated to offend or to make people upset, they were donated to give people a place to sit an reflect while at the cemetery. I also want to quote a statement of opinion that we received: ‘The donators of the benches, Taber Pro-Life, were not imposing their views and values on anyone. Rather, they were simply making a thoughtful, heartfelt donation to our community, nothing more.’ This is my opinion concerning this — I am very thankful and grateful that my parents chose life.”
Coun. Andrew Prokop drew no comparison between advertising identifying Taber Pro-Life and that of local service clubs.
“I believe there is town property and town parks that have benches or other items that were donated by somebody like the Lion’s Club, for example. So I don’t see a whole lot of difference, to be honest. It’s a reasonable expectation that if somebody does donate something like that, there’s nothing wrong with putting their logo on it. That’s not saying what they’re all about, or their beliefs, or any of the rest of it — it’s just they’re the donators, plain and simple. Councillor Sparks’ statements are pretty clear as per the opinions suggested, and I agree with that.”
Coun. Laura Ross-Giroux curtly suggested the issue could develop into a controversial situation for the Town of Taber considering oppositional opinions on both sides of the pro-life/pro-choice argument.
“I think this does have the potential to be a political hot potato.”
Mayor Henk De Vlieger launched into an attack on current value structures which promote political correctness, suggesting the situation was a slippery slope.
“I know that we live in a society that has to be politically correct, and it seems like, too — we’ve seen it in other cases, two or three people are demanding things happen for the whole society. Are we ready to become a part of that? I drove out to the cemetery just to see for myself. The first thing that you see before you even drive in the cemetery is two pillars with crosses on it. Is that going to be the next object, because it’s a religious symbol in a public place? Where does it start and where does it stop?”
De Vlieger then announced his unreserved support for the pro-life position, while questioning what other individuals “can have against life?”
“I personally think it’s an expression of life. I’m also in favour of life, from conception until death. In our family, we’ve fought for life with a couple of our kids. What can you have against life? I personally don’t see it. It’s been there for seven, eight years now. I don’t see a reason that we have to change this.”
Taking a more conciliatory approach, Coun. Joe Strojwas agreed that removing the benches might set a precedent, but not necessarily the one suggested by administration.
“We’ve got benches around town that have advertising for real estate firms. Where do we go with this here, as far as if we eliminate those, do we have to go eliminate the other ones? They’re on town property, too, it’s a form of advertising. This is a touchy issue, but if we remove those, if somebody doesn’t like one of the real estate agents, are we going to have remove those as well from town property? I know the town has an issue with that, and has had in the past, is advertising on 50th Street here, which can only be non-profit organizations. But yet there are other benches around town that are advertising for profit.”
Following this discussion, Brewin put forward the motion to remove the benches from the cemetery, which sparked terse comments from Sparks and De Vlieger prior to the vote.
“If this motion goes through, I’ll be more than happy and proud to have those benches put on my front lawn,” said Sparks.
De Vlieger lamented the potential outcome of a positive vote.
“I will vote against this motion. I think it’s very sad if we had to pull these out. As I said, it will be very sad if this motion passes.”
At their Aug. 17 meeting, town council voted 5-2 to defeat the motion directing administration to work with Taber Pro-Life to have two benches inscribed with “Taber Pro-Life” removed from the Taber Memorial Gardens Cemetery by Sept. 30, and that those benches be replaced by the town with benches that have no inscription. Coun.(s) Jack Brewin and Laura Ross-Giroux were the only votes in favour of the motion.