By Trevor Busch
Controversy over pro-life benches in the town cemetery, which made national headlines earlier this month for the second time in less than five years, has been further sidelined by town council following a 4-3 split vote.
“As you’re all aware, the placement of the Taber Pro-Life benches in the cemetery has been in the news,” said Coun. Carly Firth during the Oct. 9 regular meeting. “I understand this was debated by the previous council. It seems the matter is still not resolved in some people’s minds. I’m wondering how we can address those concerns about the benches going forward?”
Complaints requesting the removal of benches promoting Taber Pro-Life in the local cemetery were dismissed by previous town council in August 2015 following a 5-2 split vote.
On Oct. 9, Firth put forward the motion to further discuss the placement issue as a request for decision at council’s next meeting. Coun. Joe Strojwas appeared unwilling to even discuss the issue, while suggesting that ignoring the public’s concerns would allow the issue to “die.”
“As Councillor Firth made mention of, we dealt with this a number of years ago. I think council bringing this up again is just going to fester the whole situation,” said Strojwas. “I would prefer that we just let this issue die, leave it alone. I’ve had lots of people make comments to me that those benches are fine where they are, and I don’t think we should make a decision based on one or two people’s individual letters to council about that.”
Raising the spectre of another quasi-religious controversy which also made headlines in the community several years ago involving Dr. Hamman School, Strojwas argued the interests of the public are often fickle and short-lived.
“There was an issue a number of years ago where a young lady wrote to the school division asking them to take the Lord’s Prayer out of the school. They did that, immediately without any further deliberation, and a year later they put it back in. I think this is an issue that should be just left alone, let it die.”
Following discussion, council voted 4-3 to defeat Firth’s motion. Coun.(s) Firth, Garth Bekkering, and Jack Brewin voted in favour. Brewin had put forward the 2015 motion which was defeated.
According to information provided by administration in 2015, the benches in question had been in place for approximately eight years on concrete pads on the north side of the cemetery, and had 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 were the subject of at least two complaints from individuals visiting the cemetery, who objected to political messaging being located on town property. One of the complaints was received in late 2014, while the other was dated from July 2015.
“Taking positions on moral issues that are ultimately not decided at the municipal level puts the town at risk,” reads a statement from administration’s background to the decision from 2015. “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.”
Current Mayor Andrew Prokop, a councillor at the time, had drawn 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.”