'A lot of hate and bigotry around': Church terminates sign contract over refusal to post gay-positive message

A Scarborough church has terminated its more than three-year-old contract with Toronto sign company Archer Mobile Sign Limited over its refusal to post “gay-positive” messages.

Another church in west-end Toronto has launched a human rights complaint against Archer Mobile Signs

Rev. Daniel Benson, pastor of St. Paul’s United Church, with their new sign in the background. (Submitted)

A Scarborough church has terminated its more than three-year-old contract with a Toronto sign company over the sign company's refusal to post "gay-positive" and other messages on the church's behalf.

St. Paul's United Church is the latest to be embroiled in a dispute with Archer Mobile Signs Limited.

Windermere United Church in west-end Toronto has launched a human rights complaint against the company over its refusal to post messages, which Archer Mobile Signs owner Steven Thompson said are contrary to his religious beliefs.

Rev. Daniel Benson, the pastor of St. Paul's United Church, said its contract with Archer Mobile Signs had commenced prior to his arrival at the church more than three years ago.

He said the problems started on June 17, when he sent an e-mail to Thompson requesting some updates to the sign.

"The front of the sign was to say 'Happy Pride: The rainbow is God's promise of unconditional love for everyone,'" Benson told CBC Toronto.

"The rear should say 'Aboriginal Week of Prayer: AkweNia'Tetewáneren. All my relations.'"

But Benson received an email back from Thompson saying they needed to talk, and that he'd like to stay clear.

There's a lot of hate and bigotry around and I think [we need] to stand up to it.- Rev. Daniel Benson, pastor of St. Paul's United Church

Benson said Thompson refused to communicate further via e-mail or on the phone and when they eventually met, Thompson would not allow him to record their conversation.

"He basically told me his story about his faith journey and that given where he believed he was and his relationship with God he could not put this content up," Benson said.

"The rationale seems to be that if we put up something that was gay-positive on the sign it might be vandalized."

Contract terminated

Benson said even though he stressed that the church is the client and the importance of the message for its ministry in staking its claim of who they are in the community, Thompson would not budge.

He said he eventually took the matter to his board, which was very supportive of the content and authorized him to immediately terminate the contract with Archer Mobile Signs Limited.

Benson said he plans to reach out to Windermere United Church pastor, Rev. Alexa Gilmour, about joining her human rights complaint.

Gilmour said she was forced to take action after Archer Mobile Signs Limited refused to post a message that encouraged people to wish their Muslim neighbours a Ramadan Mubarak [Happy Ramadan] and another that encouraged people to celebrate diversity during Pride Week.

Windermere United Church pastor, Rev. Alexa Gilmour, said she was forced to take action after Archer Mobile Signs refused to post a message, which encouraged people to wish their Muslim neighbours a Ramadan Mubarak [Happy Ramadan] and another that encouraged people to celebrate diversity during Pride Week. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

In the complaint, Gilmour said interfaith dialogue and action is a central part of her faith and ministry, and if Windermere United cannot post the messages they choose then they cannot do the ministry they feel called by God to do.

"I understand that he is allowed to have his own faith even if I disagree with his beliefs. I'm not asking him to change his and embrace mine. I'm asking him not to censor mine," Gilmour told CBC Toronto.

"We have a right to put a message of faith and put our faith into practice by using that sign and that's what we've been doing for years now and that's what I was asking to be done going forward."

Gilmour said the sign was one of the ways Windermere United Church shows its inclusion and welcome of the community, and when that ability was taken away by Archer Mobile Signs she feared that the church's Muslim neighbours would wonder why they were not included.

"I don't know how I could post words of inclusion and love one week and then not stand against exclusion and hatred the next," she said.

Prejudice lurks, fight for justice is real

For Benson, the entire episode shows that it can be quite easy to underestimate where prejudice lurks.

"We make assumptions, particularly in a place like Toronto, that it's gay-positive, it's racially positive. It's easy to make those assumptions and I think we are constantly in a place of having those assumptions tested and challenged on many, many fronts," he said.

"We tend to think of Toronto as being cosmopolitan, and yet as we know there's a lot of hate and bigotry around and I think one of the things is to stand up to it."

He said the fight for justice is still a real one on all sorts of fronts, whether it's women's rights, the #MeToo movement, black lives matter, aboriginal rights and reconciliation or LGBT issues.

With files from Linda Ward