Elephant in the room

THAT it could shelter an elephant was not the only factor at play when plans for a big church were rejected by Shire of Denmark councillors after objectors accused its Baptist proponents of anti-gay bias.

On May 21, Ian Osborne, Roger Seeney and Rob Whooley were the only Denmark councillors to vote against an alternative motion put by Cr Kingsley Gibson that the planned Baptist church be refused.

Cr Gibson agreed with several objectors that the building would be too big.

The planned church, from application lodged by Martin Beeck, Architect.

Cr Osborne disagreed, saying the recommended approval by consultant planner Steve Thompson accorded with planning law.

“One of the things that concerns me is there is an undercurrent here of moral and ethical objection and it’s quite clear that if there is any discrimination of any kind against potential users of this facility then this discrimination will fall under and be dealt with by Federal discrimination legislation,” Cr Osborne said.

Mr Thompson had advised that the 560sqm church, planned for a leafy block on South Coast Highway 600 metres east of town, would have been 26.4m wide and 28.8m long. 

If hypothetically erected around a centrally positioned male Asian elephant, the church’s walls and three-metre high ceiling would not touch the sides or head of the big tusker.

After 48 landholders were consulted on the church, 11 submissions were lodged including eight objections.

One objector opposed the building “from an ethical point of view”. 

“The Baptist Church has issues with inclusivity, which precludes homosexuality,” the objector argued.

“The building is being promoted as a community centre but I cannot understand how it can be such if certain groups of our community would not be welcome to perform in the building …

“My suspicion is that large workshops of people will be coming from without Denmark to use the facility under the guise of Margaret Court Ministries supporters.”

Several prominent tennis players have called for Margaret Court Arena in Melbourne to be renamed following controversial comments about gay people attributed to the the grand-slam world record holder who has a church in Perth. 

Back in Denmark, another objector said the town prided itself on being diverse, inclusive and accepting.

“While acknowledging the right to religious freedom, it would seem incongruous to allow a group, whose intolerance towards certain groups within society is on the public record, to build what purports to be a community centre and then have them censor or regulate what occurs within that space,” they opined.

At the Council meeting, Susan Ryan of nearby Flay Street questioned “how inclusive” the church was likely to be. Pre-empting the Council’s eventual refusal of the plans, she invited councillors to her street for a site visit.

The last word from the gallery belonged to Graham Ritchie, of Denmark Baptist Church, who stepped to the lectern from the Shire’s back pew.

“We’ve been part of this community for over 50 years,” he said.

“We don’t have our own building.

“We’ve owned that land now for nearly 30 years and it’s always been our intention to build something upon it.”

Pastor Ritchie said the building would allow a move from the town’s ambulance centre, and be “inclusive of all groups”.

“While, ideologically, we would have a particular view on certain things for using the building for, you can ask loaded questions any time …: ‘Will you include gay people’, for instance,” he said.

“Let me make something very clear right here and now; Philosophically, I am opposed to the gay lifestyle, but philosophically I am not opposed to gay people, and … we are open and we have people in our church [with whom] I associate and who I counsel in that regard.”

Pastor Ritchie said the Denmark Baptist Church had “never, ever said that we would exclude anyone from those sorts of things”.

“But, if you had someone come into the building, and I’m sure the Council would be the same way, that was totally against the ethos of your community here, you would certainly have something to say as to whether or not that would meet that requirement,” he continued.

“Now, regardless of whether or not we as a church oppose that lifestyle, it’s not saying that we would in any way, shape or form exclude them or want to marginalise them simply because we have a different view.”

Shire President Ceinwen Gearon explained the Council chambers was very inclusive.

“We have actually had members of the community dressed as trees come and address us … and we have had some interpretive dance performed by a bush fairy and been sprinkled with fairy dust, so we are quite familiar with diversity of opinions in this room,” she expanded.

Pastor Ritchie said he understood that and his new church would be as “accommodating as we possibly can be”.

“And with all fairness, it is a two-way street along that line and there has to be respect on both sides,” he said.

Cr Gearon said she “couldn’t agree more”, and Pastor Ritchie returned to his seat.

Later, outside the chambers, he told The Voice of the South that Margaret Court had nothing to do with the project and had not contacted the Denmark Baptists or been contacted about it.

“That is the biggest furphy I have ever heard,” he added.

“Why would we?”

He said if he were to appeal the Council decision in the State Administrative Tribunal, the church would probably be approved.

But he said he would negotiate with the Shire to agree on a building that would benefit Denmark’s community.

A sign prophesising the coming of a Baptist church has been on the block for 23 years.

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