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Council OKs policy paving way for worship services in city parks

'My personal belief is it sends the wrong message to open up events in the park' during a pandemic, says Coun. Jay Fallis

The Hallelujah Chorus could soon ring out in Couchiching Beach Park. Or Tudhope Park.

City Council, at a virtual meeting Monday, endorsed a new policy that paves the way for religious worship to occur within municipal parks. 

But there are some restrictions and guidelines that are meant to ensure such services do not “impact the general public’s use of the parks.”

Ray Merkley, the city’s director of parks, recreation and culture, brought forward the request, saying it’s necessary to have a policy in place.

“Past practice, generally, has not permitted worship services,” Merkley told councillors. But he said there is not a policy on the books and noted an Easter Sunday sunrise service has occurred at Couchiching Beach Park for several years.

Earlier this year, the city was asked for permission, by a religious organization, to hold a religious worship service within a municipal park on a busy weekend during the summer months. 

“This request was denied as it was part of a three-day special event inviting a large number of people into Couchiching Beach Park for the purpose of participating in the religious worship,” noted a staff report.

That request, coupled with the onset of the pandemic, prompts the need for a policy, said Merkley.

“In light of the COVID-19 physical distancing protocols staff is concerned that there may be more requests of this nature since spreading out in a church would be more limiting than in an open air setting,” noted the staff report to council.

“Churches may find that this is a way they could comply with the distancing and continue to operate. Setting a precedent to allow this type of religious worship would make it very difficult to refuse future ongoing requests from either traditional or non-traditional types of religious worship to hold their event in a public park as well.”

Coun. Jay Fallis said he feared such a policy would send the wrong message to citizens.

“In normal circumstances, I think I’d be open to considering it,” said Fallis, noting he doesn’t see a “huge ethical problem” with such a policy.

“But, right now, with the COVID pandemic ongoing, my personal belief is it sends the wrong message to open up events in the park,” said Fallis, noting the city is “trying to discourage” public gatherings.

Coun. Tim Lauer disagreed.

“This may be the perfect time” to enact such a policy, said Lauer, noting “we’ve got a pretty vibrant church community (that is) looking for ways to meet.”

He said the “park would provide that opportunity to actually safely distance themselves while conducting a service.”

Lauer did, however, express concerns about who might be considered a “religious group” and wondered if the policy needed more details.

Merkley said that could be considered but expressed concerns about it being “arbitrary and judgemental.”

Coun. Ralph Cipolla asked his colleagues for support to table the plan until next year, when the pandemic is in the rearview mirror.

“I think it’s really important we keep our community safe,” said Cipolla.

But Merkley stressed it was imperative to act quickly.

“Currently there is no policy that prevents a group from coming to us and asking us to do a service,” said Merkley. “This is our means to try to come up with a consistent policy.”

Council rejected the idea to table the initiative and agreed to support the new policy.

Now that the new policy is in place,  Merkley said staff will work with religious groups that request to host worship services within municipal parks. 

The policy includes the following guidelines: 

  • Eligible for any municipal-owned park between the hours of 6 a.m. and 9 a.m., seven days a week, year round; 
  • Maximum of two (2) events per organization per year;
  • The use of amplified sound is prohibited;
  • The municipal park will remain open to the general public; 
  • No monetary collections are permitted; and
  • All other policies regulating the booking of municipal parks shall apply

Mayor Steve Clarke said a local group has approached the city’s Emergency Management Committee about hosting a large drive-in church service. That group, he said, is contemplating both public and private property for such a service.

But city CAO Gayle Jackson said that concept has “not yet received a green light from the province.”

While Premier Doug Ford has said he would consider the idea, it has not been formally endorsed.

A drive-in service, Jackson explained, would involve people staying in their cars, in a parking lot or field, listening to a service transmitted on their radios or via some other means. People would not be permitted to get out of their cars and socialize.

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Dave Dawson

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