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Thursday, January 23, 2020
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Wellesley debates potential controversy in use of Biblical verse on trail sign

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The potential for controversy over religious wording had Wellesley councillors debating the finer points of a trailside plaque.

Meeting Tuesday night, council discussed a bronze plaque set to mark an eight-acre stretch of land that’s to be part of a new trail system in Wellesley village. The inclusion of a passage from the Bible was the topic of a discussion that stemmed from last month’s decision to honour the Erb family’s request the trail be name “Erbhaven Trails.”

The Erb family also requested the plaque to commemorate their father include the following text: “The land for this trail was donated in loving memory of Earl E. Erb. 1940 – 2015 / May he be remembered through the beauty of this trail. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

The religious component of the wording raised a red flag for Ward 1 Coun. Shelley Wagner.

“We may, not intentionally, but we may offend someone in the near future that will use the trail who does not have the same beliefs,” said Wagner.

She suggested that staff get a second opinion on the potential controversy. Mayor Joe Nowak recommended that a multi-denominational ministry organization could be asked for input.

He also noted that in a previous instance, it was generally not the religious groups that took offence: Wellesley council reluctantly cut out a long-time tradition of opening council meetings with a prayer back in 2015 following a Supreme Court ruling involving a Quebec case.

“I remember when we were dealing with the prayer before council, I don’t think it was the religious groups that were concerned. As a matter of fact, most of them are very supportive of some form of acknowledgement,” said Nowak.

“It was the agnostic, the non-believers, that were up in arms at the time. They were the ones that lobbied to not have any sort of display of religious sentiments.”

Ward 3 Coun. Peter van der Maas also brought up that the term “Lord” mentioned in the text is broad; therefore, could be interpreted many ways across different denominations. He added it was best to consider the wishes of the donors.

“I think we’re being a little overly sensitive in this case,” said van der Maas. “It’s a private donation of land for public use, acknowledging the donor in a way which the donor would like to be acknowledged. I don’t think it goes any further than that. I can’t see any serious challenges by any rational person levied against us.”

After much deliberation, Wagner suggested that the text be specifically altered to indicate that the plaque was donated by the Erb family. The Township of Wellesley will also provide a trailhead sign outside the trail that will come in at or under $7,500.

Council approved the decision to accept the wording provided, as well as Wagner’s suggestion. The grand opening of the trail will take place October 19 at 9 a.m.

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