A Christian group has been denied a permit to hold its annual music festival in a prominent downtown square by the City of Toronto, which declares that singing the name of Jesus in a public venue constitutes proselytizing in a public venue — allegedly in violation of city policy.
For nearly a decade, Voices of the Nations (VON) has held its multi-denominational live Christian music and dance celebration every year on city property without incident — including the last five years at the Yonge-Dundas Square, LIfeSiteNews reports. The last event took place this summer on August 1, which drew 19 individual acts by various children’s choirs and popular Christian bands performing various praise and worship songs.
However, for the first time since the annual live Christian concert in Toronto began in 2006, the City of Toronto is banning the event from taking place on public property next year.
Growing hostility toward Christians
Chad Groening (OneNewNow)
A Canadian Christian educator in Canada says this decision demonstrates a growing hostility against Christians in that country.
Dr. Charles McVety, president of Canada Christian College, points out that Toronto has allowed various kinds of venues at Yonge-Dundas Square, which is considered Canada's Times Square.
"It attracts all kinds of people. It attracts Muslims who set up little tables and share the Quran," he describes. "But in this case the government decided because they were singing songs that could be interpreted as proselytizing, that they would not be welcome back."
McVety says one problem is the departure of Rob Ford, the controversial former mayor of Toronto. Ford, he says, was "very friendly" toward the church – but that the current mayor "is not so friendly."
And McVety says the recent election of Justin Trudeau as prime minister isn't going to help the cause of Christians in Canada. "There is a growing hostility day in and day out – and if we don't push back, we get pushed out," he concludes.
Yonge-Dundas Square Manager of Events Natalie Belman told VON Events Coordinator Leve Oyelani that the city would not grant the Christian group a permit to perform on its property in 2016, before suggesting for her to find another location to hold the 2006 Voices of Nations music festival.
“I’ve already advised Peter [Paresh, Director of VON] that we're not going to be permitting you guys this year for next year because of the proselytizing on the square, and that’s a big issue for us,” Belman explained on October 23, according to a phone transcript of her discussion obtained by LifeSiteNews. Operated by a volunteer Board of Management appointed by the Toronto City Counsel, the square has a $2.3 million budget annually, $400,000 of which is paid by taxpayers.
Belman answered Oyelani that performers proselytized at the Christian music festival when asked by the VON coordinator exactly who reached out to spectators in the name of Jesus Christ. Oyelani then laid out what he called proselytizing.
“If you’re praising Jesus, ‘praise the Lord,’ and ‘there’s no God like Jehovah,’ that type of thing, that’s proselytizing,” VON’s Oyelani pointed out before saying that he didn’t think simply singing about God “would be problem.”
Violation of Canadian Charter
Charlie Butts (OneNewsNow)
The sponsor for the music festival is convinced his organization is being robbed of equal rights in a Toronto downtown square.
Peter Ruparelia, spokesman for Voices of the Nations, points out the city allows other forms of music in the square, some including filthy language, rap music that denigrates women and glamorizes violence, but no to music with a message of Christian love:
"Other religious organizations, it's fine – Hare Krishna chants, and there was a Muslim festival there," Ruparelia explains.
So there is concern local officials are violating the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees religious freedom.
Ruparelia says one disappointment is that Toronto's Christian community has been largely silent. "Things can happen around us and we're just passive and we just let it go by ... [but] you know, you have to step out as Christians. I mean God can do so much – but God needs vessels in order to do his work."
Around 40,000 of those "vessels" have signed petitions submitted to the city to gain access to the square. Voices of the Nations has also sent a demand letter and is raising funds for legal expenses in the event a lawsuit becomes necessary.
In response to the manager of the square’s response, Oyelani expressed his confusion about the City’s objection to singing songs about God.
“[I didn’t think singing about God] would be a problem [since it’s a Christian event],” VON’s events coordinator said.
But Belman didn’t agree.
“That is a big problem,” the City employee replied. “That [kind of thing], from the stage, is not acceptable.”
LIfeSiteNews’ Pete Baklinski reports that the City of Toronto’s perception of what constitutes proselytizing is not consistent with the official definition of the term — or with the Christian group’s perception of proselytizing that ran the event.
“The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines proselytism as ‘inducing someone to convert to one's faith,’” Baklinski notes. “Event organizers confirmed to LifeSiteNews that at no point during the performances did the artists induce passersby to convert to Christianity.”
According to Belman’s conversation with Oyelani, Toronto’s Performance and Display Policy forbids proselytizing.
“Performances/Displays must not advocate a specific political or religious point of view for the purpose of proselytizing,” the policy reads, yet it does not indicate that mentioning and praising God’s name is banned.
After attending VON’s August music event this year, Belman expressed to Oyelani that the songs performed at the square this summer violated the policy established by the City of Toronto.
“That seems to be a large part of your programming,” Belman contended. “it seems to be an integral part of what your mandate is, and given that, I think that you guys should be looking for a different venue, because that is not in-line with our policies.”
Stop Bullying Christians Now Founder Rev. David Lynn says the City of Toronto is orchestrating “blatant discrimination” against Christians through its denial of a permit for VON’s annual event.
“How’s a Christian at a Christian event not to say the name of Jesus in their songs?” Lynn posed.
Lynn, who is also the founder of Christian Positive Space, as well as a street preacher at the square in Toronto on a daily basis, contends that every type of faith and worldview is expressed at the square.
“Daily I see every kind of event, from Muslim, Buddhist, LGBT, Rap, Hindu, and they all share their beliefs and express their philosophies,” Lynn told LifeSiteNews. “That is the beauty of diversity, which, while I don't agree with everything everyone says, I nevertheless embrace it.”
Baklinski demonstrates that a form of unlawful discrimination is taking place in Toronto, according to the code established in the Canadian province of Ontario.
“The Ontario Human Rights Code prohibits discrimination based on ‘creed,’ calling it a ‘discriminatory practice’ to deny someone ‘services, goods and facilities’ based on this prohibited ground,” Baklinski notes. “Individuals discriminated against can launch a complaint to The Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.”
After experiencing a different brand of persecution while open-air preaching on Toronto’s streets, Lynn argues that unlawfully silencing Christians from sharing their beliefs is an accepted form of discrimination in one of Canada’s most populous cities.
“[It is] bullying [to deny Christians the] right to sing about their God and about their creed [in the public square],” Lynn concludes. “This City of Toronto verdict is telling the Christian community that we are not allowed to be ourselves on Toronto property … [t]his is awful.”
11-3-2015 - Comments from Dr. McVety added.
11-11-2015 - Comments from Peter Ruparelia added.