Local church holds 'big influence' over Ontario township that voted down Pride flags

·5 min read

On a recent weekday afternoon, the main street in Norwich Township was bustling with people chatting at the local cafe, eating at the deli or browsing through shops.

But residents say all that changes on Sundays, when the community in southwestern Ontario largely closes for the Christian day of rest, clinging to a practice generally abandoned across the province since the early 1990s when the government scrapped Sunday closures.

For locals, the Sunday quiet – and a recent controversial decision to ban Pride flags on municipal property – point to the outsized influence in Norwich of one church, the Netherlands Reformed Congregation.

"There's a big influence here from a certain religious group," said James Forrest, a professor at the University of Waterloo who has lived in Norwich Township for over 18 years with his family.

"I know people that have tried to open businesses and be open on a Sunday and they've been visited by the minister saying, 'if you stay open on Sunday … you'll be out of business.'"

The Netherlands Reformed Congregation, established in Norwich in 1949, sits in a well-tended building with a traditional spire, nestled in the township of 11,000 people that's surrounded by farmland.

Norwich captured attention last month when the local council voted 3-2 in favour of a motion to prohibit Pride flags on municipal property. Only the flags of the federal, provincial and municipal governments are now allowed.

The move came after the township saw several cases of vandalism last year involving Pride flags and banners in support of the LGBTQ community.

Coun. John Scholten, who introduced the motion, said he wanted to change the flag policy to "maintain the unity" of the community. Neither he nor Mayor Jim Palmer, who voted in favour of the motion, responded to requests for comment.

Colleen Bator was one of several residents who said she believed the Netherlands Reformed Congregation's beliefs may have influenced the council vote.

"That particular church is embedded in all facets of decision-making of the town," Bator said in an interview.

Church leaders did not respond to multiple interview requests from The Canadian Press.

The church website makes clear its opposition to LGBTQ rights, saying on its "beliefs" page that "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."

Tara King, another Norwich resident, said there is a "big divide" in the town between the church's members and others.

"They will go to businesses in Norwich and tell you to your face, 'we will not do business with you if you're open on Sunday,'" she said.

Oxford Country Pride, an advocacy group, said it has taken the Pride flag ban to the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

"Just having that as a motion going into a municipal meeting is a violation of human rights, so we put in an initial complaint because of that," said Tami Murray, the group's president.

"We will be following up with a secondary complaint given that they have followed through with the motion," she added.

Coun. Alisha Stubbs, who voted against the motion, voiced hope that the Pride flag controversy could mobilize residents who support inclusion.

"I think we're going to see the community coming together to advocate for belonging and advocate for things that make sense and things that can really help support marginalized communities," she said in an interview.

Coun. Shawn Gear, the other dissenter in the Pride flag vote, told The Canadian Press in an email that he is "not interested in getting involved in any type of article that is going to address any divisional issues."

Norwich's conservative religious character dates back to the early 19th Century, when the township was settled by Peter Lossing — a Quaker from New York state who arrived in 1810, said Matthew Lloyd, a curatorial assistant with the Norwich and District Museum.

The Netherlands Reformed Congregation began strengthening its presence in the town following the Second World War and held services in Dutch for a time, Lloyd added.

"They were being placed all over Ontario," he said of NRC adherents.

Lloyd said one factor that appeared to deepen division in the town was the closure of the local public high school.

Norwich still hosts the Rehoboth Christian School, a private Kindergarten to Grade 12 institution that serves "several local Dutch Reformed churches," according to its website.

But, since the local high school was shuttered more than a decade ago, public high school students have been bused to the nearby communities of Delhi or Woodstock.

"(The students) just don't have the opportunity to mingle," Lloyd said. "You don't have to get along from a young age because you're not in school together."

For Norwich resident Jennifer St Pierre, the Pride flag ban has forced her to question whether she can continue living in the township.

"Part of me has to decide whether or not it's worth it for me staying here or not," said St Pierre, who moved to Norwich from Montreal in September.

"This doesn't give me a good impression to renew my lease next year, because I am part of this community. I am part of the LGBT+ community."

Forrest, of the University of Waterloo, said Norwich needs to modernize its outlook or risk further public criticism.

"I think the township needs to get into this century," he said. "I'd love to be optimistic, but it's a very large group here that doesn't want to be in this century."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 10, 2023.

Jessica Smith, The Canadian Press