Mayor Rod Finnie says council may address the issue of a Lions Club party at Centre 2000 that featured strippers, but its hands are tied when it comes to a church occupying the basement of another town-owned building in Balinafad.
Mount Zion Full Gospel Ministries, which has occupied the bottom floor of the Balinafad community centre for several years, was the topic of a February episode of W-Five that suggested Pastor Andre Paton may be “brainwashing” women and influencing them to leave their families.
Several residents have complained about the church since that episode aired, but unless there is any proof of illegal activity, which Finnie says the CTV program did not provide, it appears there is nothing the town can do.
“I understand why people are concerned,” Finnie said. “But we’d be leaving ourselves wide open to a court case if we terminate the lease without cause … Our lawyers told us not to do that.”
The W-Five episode alleged Paton simply filled out an online form to become the church leader and received no formal education or training, but Finnie said it is not as simple as declaring that only members of a recognized church can use the building.
“What qualifies as a ‘church’?” Finnie asked, saying the town would then be entering a whole human rights, issue. He likened kicking out Paton’s church to disallowing Muslims to practice in the town, when “they have as much a right to practice their religion as we do.”
The W-Five investigation, conducted by reporter Victor Malarek, alleged that Paton encouraged women to leave their families and that six of the church’s female members now live together in two houses in Acton.
The Halton Hills family of Alice Sanderson told Malarek Alice left them for the church, and is now seeking a divorce from her husband, Jim.
The family said the church teaches members that if they miss a Sunday service they risk “a stint in hell,” and it also condones a “deliverance ritual” in which Alice was taught to vomit in buckets provided in the church “to get rid of evil spirits.”
Paton has repeatedly denied all the above claims – as have any members of the church willing to speak to the media -as well as accusations that he specifically targets women with the goal of receiving large financial gifts from them.
“They’ve said we’re a religious cult … It’s not true,” Paton told the Owen Sound Sun-Times in February.
Erin councillor John Brennan, who sits on the board of the community centre, said there has been “some talk” in the community and there are “mixed feelings” on the board, but he has received just one formal complaint about the church.
He told the Advertiser all he knows for sure about the church is that it has been a tenant “for quite a while,” it always pays its $600 monthly rent on time, and it keeps the basement clean and has never caused any damage to the building.
“Everything else is conjecture,” he said, adding the town needs more than allegations in a TV show to evict someone. “The subject of religious freedom is a tricky one at best.”
Despite what is taught at the church, Finne agreed.
“The community may not think those are appropriate beliefs, but if they’re not doing anything illegal, it’s beyond the scope of what we can control,” Finnie said.