The pastor of a large Steinbach church has warned local politicians, teachers, media members and other local citizens in prominent jobs that God can replace them if they stay silent on the call to oppose the province's Bill 18.
At his Feb. 24 sermon to thousands of parishioners at Southland Church in Steinbach, Pastor Ray Duerksen specifically cited Hanover and Steinbach councillors, Hanover school trustees, doctors in the regional health authority, MLAs and MPs, police, firefighters, teachers, and media members and said: "God did not place you in your position because you are the only person who can do your job that well.
"If you don't do it, God will set you and I aside, and raise up someone who will."
Bill 18, which aims to fight bullying, guarantees any student in a public or private school who asks to form a gay-straight alliance must be supported by the school. Some Christians in southern Manitoba have said the bill infringes on their right to support schools that reflect their religious values.
A source in Steinbach who requested anonymity said Wednesday there is local talk that some church members are planning to run their own slates in the 2014 school board and city council elections, to try to "stack" the public bodies.
Duerksen said in his Feb. 24 sermon God placed people in their positions -- including him -- for a reason.
"We have influence. You are an Esther or a Mordechai because you have influence," the pastor said, apparently referring to a Book of Esther story in which two characters who had influence in the court of a king are praised for standing up for the "people of God" despite personal risk.
"It's (Bill 18) a legitimate fear, and I should do something about it.
"God doesn't need us," Duerksen said. "Too many people take for granted their positions of influence."
Duerksen did not respond to an interview request Wednesday.
The sermon came the same morning as a meeting and prayer session later that evening that drew 1,200 people to Steinbach Christian High School to oppose Bill 18 -- Duerksen used his sermon to exhort his parishioners to attend.
Duerksen asked those who choose to remain silent on Bill 18 how they can ever explain themselves to their children and grandchildren.
Several area municipal councillors are reportedly members of the Southland congregation. In his official online biography, Tory education critic MLA Kelvin Goertzen (Steinbach) says his family has belonged to Southland for 15 years.
If Bill 18 passes, Duerksen said in his sermon, "We're going to lose our religious freedom.
"We lost the abortion debate in the '70s... we lost the same-sex debate," and it's not going to happen again, he said.
Duerksen said if Steinbach Christian High School is forced to allow a gay-straight alliance in the school, "that is an attack on our religious freedom."
Steinbach Christian has 235 students in grades 5 to 12.
Meanwhile, Steinbach Regional Secondary School has 1,394 public school students in grades 10 to 12 and is the fourth-largest school in Manitoba. The Hanover School Division has told Education Minister Nancy Allan it will comply with Bill 18, and will accommodate any student who requests a gay-straight alliance.
In his sermon, Duerksen said any sex outside of the parameters of a man and a woman married to each other "is wrong." Duerksen said Bill 18 is the greatest challenge facing Christian churches, and said it is part of a hidden agenda to destroy Christianity.
Duerksen said the Bible is being treated as "hate literature."
The church and the community are in "mortal danger" over the legislation, Duerksen said.
Southland Church has scheduled a prayer session on Bill 18 Friday from 8 p.m. to midnight.
Steinbach city council has demanded Education Minister Nancy Allan review Bill 18 to ensure it does not violate freedom of religion.
"There's a recognition that the goals and intent of Bill 18 are generally noble," Steinbach Mayor Chris Goertzen said Wednesday.
But, he said, councillors felt compelled to support constituents' concerns that the anti-bullying legislation does not adequately define bullying, and that it jeopardizes their ability to practise their faith.
Allan said Wednesday the council motion, which passed 5-2 on Tuesday, will not dissuade her from providing "a safe and caring learning environment for all our students. There are many voices in that community."
The mayor said every student deserves an environment free from bullying, and student safety is council's primary concern.
"We're a tolerant, progressive community," he said. "We want to make sure that people can still practise their faith and follow the law."
Goertzen said at no point in the debate Tuesday did any councillor refer to a provision in Bill 18 that guarantees any student in a public or private school who asks to form a gay-straight alliance must be accommodated and supported by the school.
A crowd of 1,200 people at Steinbach Christian High School Feb. 24 objected to the bill. The Hanover School Division has told Allan it will comply with the bill, which is expected to be law when school opens in September.
"Council is very conscious we need to respect others," Goertzen said. "We don't often get involved in school matters. It's valid for a council to express citizens' concerns."
Goertzen said the position of two councillors voting against the motion because they feel council has no place in education matters has merit, but there is such strong opposition to Bill 18, council must support its constituents.
The RM of Hanover passed a similar resolution last week, Goertzen pointed out.
Municipal councils rarely venture into school board matters.
Conservative education critic Kelvin Goertzen (Steinbach) declined to comment.
"Because they are all elected officials, I will just let them speak for themselves and their reasons for concern," he said.