A topless woman stood outside a local church in Norwich Township, about 15 kilometres south of Woodstock, last Sunday – and will be there every Sunday in June – to protest the municipality's ban on flying Pride and other non-government flags on civic property.
Recent attempts to convince politicians in the rural Southwestern Ontario township to rescind the flag ban have fallen flat. Some residents believe the only way they'll change their minds is if the push comes from the Netherlands Reformed Congregation (NRC), a local church critics say has an outsized influence in the community's politics.
So, as the conservative Christian denomination ended its morning service Sunday, Marta McDonald stood outside the property topless with a sign that read: "The shirt goes on when our flag goes up."
"I figured that if I'm an irritant on an ongoing basis, they'll hopefully ask council to reconsider the motion that was voted on," said McDonald, who's lived in Norwich for six years.
In response to a request for comment, Rev. E. Hakvoort asked that questions be sent by email for review and that they'd only be answered if church officials could see the story before publication "and we approve the way we are quoted." (The Free Press does not allow people quoted in stories to see them pre-publication.)
McDonald wasn't alone in her protest against the ban. About a dozen residents used chalk to draw a massive rainbow-themed crosswalk and write messages promoting love and inclusivity on the town's main street. A small march was held as churchgoers went in and out of the service.
"The purpose was to be there and present when (people left) just to show them we're not here to cause trouble. We're not here in anger. We just want to be accepted. We want to be welcomed and show who we are," said one of the organizers, Jennifer Wild.
Another participant, Krista Whitcroft, said she wants to let politicians know they made the wrong decision. "We're talking about human beings here. I fully disagree, and I want it to be known."
The township – already marked by controversy after multiple Pride flags were stolen and vandalized last year – made headlines again after its council introduced a motion to restrict flag-flying on civic property to only municipal, provincial or federal flags.
At a recent council meeting, Alisha Stubbs, a councillor who led the push for LGBTQ inclusivity, resigned after the bylaw was approved.
Coun. John Scholten, who introduced the ban, has said flying only government flags would "maintain the unity" of the township. Many residents and advocates disagree and have pointed to the church as influencing council's decision.
Some also have raised questions about the wording of the bylaw, which explicitly states the ban doesn't apply to banners for the community's junior and minor hockey teams, and about the Christian law firm that drafted the policy.
The municipality hired the Acacia Group, an Ottawa-based law firm that offers services to a "boutique clientele of churches, charities, non-profit, and religious institutions," its website states.
The township's top administrator, Kyle Kruger, said it's a common practice to hire an external company when bylaws are required. Staff selected the firm because it "has experience related to public policy matters and the like," he said.
Scholten, Coun. Adrian Couwenberg and Mayor Jim Palmer also did not respond to requests for comment. Coun. Shawn Gear, who voted against the flag bylaw with Stubbs, declined to comment but said his decisions are not swayed by any particular organization.
The church, whose Norwich congregation was established in 1949, is a conservative Christian denomination with congregations in Canada and the United States. The “beliefs” section on its website reads: "Any form of sexual immorality (including but not limited to homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality, bestiality, incest, fornication, adultery and use of pornography) is sinful and offensive to God."
Despite having the police called on her Sunday, McDonald said she won't let that deter her from going topless again. Women in Ontario won the right to bare their chests publicly in 1996. She plans to protest near the church throughout Pride Month in June.
"I'm going to be here until things change," she said.
For her, the flag-flying issue is personal. "I have family who are (transgender), and I feel like no one should have to apologize for who they are in this town."
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