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UPDATE: Abortion display angers rights group

Crosses are lined in a field on South Parallel Road as part of a display about abortion.  - Alex Butler
Crosses are lined in a field on South Parallel Road as part of a display about abortion.
— image credit: Alex Butler

A national Christian group has responded to "misleading" opinions in an open letter to council that calls for the removal of an anti-abortion display.

The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC) sent a letter to the Abbotsford mayor and council on Tuesday, asking them to force the exhibit to come down. The Association for Reformed Political Action (ARPA) responded Thursday, encouraging the city to disregard the coalition's letter.

Staged by the Abbotsford Right-to-Life Society, the mock memorial is located on farmland at 35164 South Parallel Rd., featuring 1,862 crosses in rows in a grassy field. The society said the number of crosses represents the number of abortions performed each week in Canada.

The ARCC's letter to the city, signed by executive director Joyce Arthur, maintains councillors do not have "the right to impose their personal religious views on the population at large. As elected officials, you have a special responsibility to remain secular and unbiased."

The ARPA's letter, signed by legal counsel André Schutten, states that Arthur's stance on council's responsibilities are misguided.

"Granting a permit to display a true statement on private property that is privately funded is not religious imposition by city council."

Jared White, spokesperson for the Right-to-Life Society, said the display will feature signs. One will read "Abortion stops a beating heart." Another board offers a number for women to call for information about abortion alternatives.

White said the society arranges the exhibit for about two months each year, so it will not interfere with the growing season of the farmland.

In 2000, the Abbotsford Right-to-Life Society asked city hall for permission to erect a temporary off-premise sign on the property at South Parallel Road, to mark the anniversary of abortion legislation in Canada.

Council approved the request and amended the city's sign bylaw to include a new section outlining rules for non-profit charitable organizations to display signs.

White said the current signs do not contravene any bylaw, because they are not fixed in the ground and located on private property.

He said the purpose of the signs are to raise awareness that "abortion takes the life of a living human being."

Gordon Ferguson, manager of bylaw enforcement, confirmed the signs and mock memorial are not in contravention of any bylaw.

Arthur told The News that although the city cannot stop the display from being erected, they "are not off the hook."

She said council gave approval to the Right-to-Life Society in the past and should revisit the issue, exploring whether the display constitutes an act of discrimination against women.

Mayor Bruce Banman said the city will do nothing regarding the signs as they do not break any bylaws. He said he would not even consider whether it constitutes discrimination, because constructing the display is within the society's right to freedom of speech.

"People may disagree with the message, but everyone can agree we live in a free country."

Bill Vanderkooi, president of the Bakerview EcoDairy, owns the farmland. His father originally allowed  the Right-to-Life Society to use the land and he made the decision to continue to allow the displays.

"I feel in Canada there is the freedom to express views and opinions."

He said allowing the right-to-life group to use the land is his choice and not associated with the adjacent EcoDairy and Nature's Pickin's businesses.

"If people want to be upset, I want them to be upset with me personally."

Arthur's letter calls the display offensive, and asks the city to deny the Right-to-Life Society permission to erect the sign, and ban such displays in the future.

"Each of the erected crosses in the field is meant to represent a woman’s abortion. But many women having abortions are not Christian and would find it doubly offensive to have their abortion represented by a cross."

Vanderkooi said the sign is intended to open a dialogue and "let women know there are options."

White said the society has not received direct objections to the display, but is open to dialogue.

"I think we should all be pro-information."

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