A United Church minister in west-end Toronto is pitted against a Christian business owner over an outdoor signboard used to spread the word of God.
In a rare complaint filed with the Ontario Human Rights Commission on Wednesday, Rev. Alexa Gilmour, minister of Windermere United Church, alleges Archer Mobile Signs refused to post a message encouraging people to “wish your Muslim neighbours a Ramadan Mubarak (Happy Ramadan)” and another that promoted the celebration of diversity during Pride Week.
“Interfaith dialogue and action is a central part of my faith and ministry,” Gilmour told the Star. “If Windermere United cannot post the messages we choose, then we cannot do the ministry we feel called by God to do.”
According to the human rights complaint, the church had rented a mobile sign from Archer Mobile Signs since 2012 and its owner, Steven Thompson, was responsible for updating the text on the sign every week.
One side of the sign generally displayed announcements about church life and events, while the other displayed a message of faith, entitled “This Week’s Spiritual Exercise,” that was authored by Gilmour as “an expression of my faith and an act of Christian ministry.” Gilmour or her staff would dictate the weekly text to Thompson by phone or email.
In the past, there had been disagreements over some of the messages on the signs, but Gilmour said the two instances flagged in the human rights complaint were the first in which he clearly defined his reasons for objecting to the minister’s choice of words.
In May, Gilmour claimed, church administrator Michelle Maldonado wrote to Thompson and requested the Ramadan message. However, Thompson only updated the announcement on the board and refused to put up the Muslim greeting.
In an email from Thompson dated May 16 that was included in Gilmour’s human rights submission, he said he found himself confused by Gilmour’s spiritual message.
“I am all for befriending Muslims in order to reach them for Christ … There is a sense in which your spiritual exercise goes beyond wishing Muslims well, to actually encouraging them in their ideology. I have no problem with wishing them well, but I would violate my own conscience before God to encourage them in their pursuit of Allah,” according Thompson’s email.
“Because I do not see any support in the scriptures to encourage anyone in a false ideology, Islam or otherwise, I must refrain from posting your spiritual exercise. For me, this would be a sin.”
Thompson did not respond to several requests from the Star for comment and waved off a reporter who approached him in person.
The church’s allegations have not been proven. As part of the human rights process, Thompson has 35 days to respond to the complaint. He has not yet filed a response.
Gilmour said she respects Thompson’s right to his opinions and did not ask him to give up his beliefs and embrace hers, but she said he has no right to censor her religious values.
“People may say it’s just a sign,” said Gilmour, “but I use the sign to post my messages of welcome and inclusion.”
Gilmour pointed out to Thompson that he had not objected to prior interfaith messages to the Jewish community (Happy Chanukah) or people of African heritage (Happy Kwanzaa).
In his email reply, Thompson explained he had concerns about his signs being vandalized and that he has the right to refuse to let customers “say what they want’ and to “limit messaging on an Archer Sign where a threat is deemed possible.”
According to Gilmour, Thompson proposed alternatives to her message such as “Wish your Muslim neighbour well,” “befriend a Muslim” or “Invite a Muslim over for dinner” to avoid the “trigger word” Ramadan.
But Gilmour refused the suggestion because “we wish to acknowledge this holy time in the Islamic calendar and believe that treating the faith traditions differently is prejudicial and possibly racist.” Thompson then reportedly said the continued sign rental was contingent on the church accepting his company’s discretion to control its messaging, and mentioned that the placement of the mobile signs at Windermere violated city bylaw.
The minister also asked Thompson if he would post the message “Celebrate God’s diverse LGBTQ2S community with Pride” in June. According to the complaint, Thompson responded: “I think you have an idea as to my view of scripture.”
In mid-June, Thompson emailed the church to say he was removing the sign on the front lawn of the church, at Windermere Ave. and Bloor St. W., in order to comply with municipal code.
City rules on mobile signs specify they cannot be on the public right of way, such as sidewalks or boulevards. Gilmour said she believed the sign was in compliance with the bylaw.
The United Church of Canada is known for championing interfaith relations and gay rights, values that Gilmour said she always stands by.
“It’s not acceptable for a service provider to limit the way I express my Christian ministry,” she said. “I’m taking this step only because many attempts to resolve this issue through dialogue or mediation have failed.”
Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung