A HENLEY town councillor has refused to resign or apologise after blaming the recent floods on the legalisation of gay marriage.
David Silvester, 73, has been widely condemned for calling the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act “contrary to the gospel”.
The Henley Standard, which published the letter expressing his views, has received many letters in response and a small protest was held outside the town hall on Saturday.
An online petition calling for his resignation has collected more than 12,000 signatures.
Cllr Silvester, a Baptist who is married with children, has also been criticised in national newspapers and on radio and television.
He has been suspended from the UK Independence Party to whom he defected from the Conservatives over the same issue in 2013. The town council says it has received 12 complaints, including calls for him to resign or be removed, but that it has no powers to take action.
Instead, South Oxfordshire District Council’s monitoring officer will decide whether he should be investigated for a possible breach of the councillors’ code of conduct.
Cllr Silvester, a retired Shell worker who was elected for the Conservatives in 2011, stood by his comments, saying that being gay was a “spiritual disease” that could be healed.
He told BBC Radio Berkshire: “I don’t have a problem with gay people. I believe as a Christian I should love gay people and indeed I do. My prayer for them is they will be healed.”
He told the Henley Standard this week that he had received 70 messages of support, mostly from fellow Christians and a number of them UKIP voters. He refused to resign or say whether he would stand for re-election in May next year.
Cllr Silvester, who lives in Luker Avenue, said: “I understand there has been a petition to have me removed from my post as a councillor but I have no intention of resigning. I don’t see any need to apologise and I stand by what I said.
“I was elected for a four-year term of office and I have every intention of continuing to work hard for the people of Henley in that capacity. If UKIP no longer require my services, my intention will be to serve as an independent.
“As regards resigning from UKIP, I still have not been informed personally that I have been suspended and until I am I shall regard myself as a fully paid-up member of the party, to whom I recently made a £170 party donation.” About 20 people took part in Saturday’s protest as they demanded Cllr Silvester’s resignation and carried a placard saying “Love Thy Neighbour”.
Organiser Sarah Butcher, 40, of Belle Vue Road, Henley, said she was “outraged and disgusted” by his comments.
She said: “If that truly is his opinion then I think he should consider withdrawing from his position. It seems like an insane thing to comment on, especially when you are representing a demographic in Henley where you’ve got different cultures, ethnicities and sexual orientation.
“It’s very hurtful and disturbing that we’ve got that kind of person in power representing us because I don’t think he represents the majority.
“Everyone is entitled to their opinion but you don’t mix politics and opinion. He’s there to represent Henley and you don’t make people feel uncomfortable.”
Mrs Butcher, an account director who is married with two children, added: “I posted the letter on Facebook on Friday night and I’ve never known so many comments or seen such disgust about what he had said.
“Nothing has really riled me like this in a number of years. That’s why I felt I needed to do something about it.”
Jane Clubb, 43, of Victoria Court, Henley said: “He calls himself a Christian but I’m a Christian too. Christians love thy neighbour and we love everybody. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you do, we should not be judging people.
“There’s only one person that will come to judge and that is God and nobody else has the right to do that.”
Mrs Clubb, who is married with three children, called on Cllr Silvester to resign.
“He can’t be seen as being a face of Henley — his views are very out of date,” she said. “Clearly he’s been reading the Old Testament but we’re on the New Testament now.
“The people having same-sex marriages have not chosen to be like that — you are gay, straight, black or white. You are born like it, you don’t wake up one morning and decide to be gay.”
Pamela Myles, 48, of Reading Road, Henley, said: “I was shocked that someone could think this way. I despise any hatred and find it completely unacceptable so I think he should resign.
“I have lots of gay friends in America and they will be disappointed because they enjoy coming over to Henley and finding it such an accepting, warm and friendly place.”
Joanna Franks, 42, of Greys Road, Henley, is gay and said: “This is the year 2014, where has he come from? I can’t believe it. I would like to see him apologise.”
Sarah Miller, 50, who lives in Reading Road with her partner Carolyn, 41, and their two children, said: “I couldn’t believe that anyone on our council — or anyone, in fact — could write such a vile letter blaming all these awful floods on gay marriage.
“I thought it was a joke. I read it and re-read it and was just very angry. There’s an awful lot of angry people out there, not just in Henley but around the world. I hope no one ever votes for UKIP.”
Henley MP John Howell attended the protest and called Cllr Silvester’s comments “completely wrong”.
He said: “It was very good of the Henley Standard to publish the letter because it shows the rest of Henley exactly what they are dealing with and why they should have nothing to do with him.
“The issue of gay marriage is over and is now legal. I’m not aware that UKIP are going to reverse the changes so I don’t know what he’s complaining about. The sooner he gets off the scene the better.
“There’s absolutely no place for that sort of attitude in today’s world. He really needs to consider his position.”
Mayor Stefan Gawrysiak said Cllr Silvester’s comments were “ill-advised” and would have offended many people, including Christians.
“These are not the views of the people who elected him,” he said. “The linking of his views to the recent flooding conveniently forgets the facts that last summer was the hottest, driest summer since 1976, so his comments not only offend but are also illogical.”
Councillor David Nimmo Smith, who leads the Conservatives on Henley Town Council, said: “I’m just glad he’s no longer a Conservative coming out with these views.
“However, he has been elected as a councillor and is entitled to stay there whatever we may think about it.”
Paul Harrison, a South Oxfordshire district councillor and former chairman of the Henley Conservatives, said: “I would have thought the fact he changed sides and didn’t have the good grace to seek re-election reflects the morals of that individual.”
Chris Baker, chairman of Henley Residents’ Group, said: “I’ve known David for a couple of years and he has always held very strong personal beliefs. In that context, like the rest of us, he has a right to say what he believes. Perhaps it would have been wiser in hindsight if he had kept it closer to himself.”
Councillor Ian Reissmann, who is HRG vice-chairman, said: “Spiritual values are very important and David’s views are clearly strong personal beliefs and as a councillor he’s entitled to express those.
“However, British society has moved on from the days of homosexuality being illegal. Same-sex marriage and discrimination laws are part of the modern British society and it’s unfortunate that David hasn’t been able to go along with us.”
Roger Cole, who has been pastor of Henley Baptist Church for 10 years, said he had known Cllr Silvester all that time and considered him a friend.
He said: “David is a very hard working and caring person who has been wonderfully supportive in the community. He is loved and respected here.
“However, leaders of the church and the church in general don’t agree with the conclusions that he’s come to about flooding being tied up with the Government’s change of policy on the redefinition of marriage.
“These were independent and personal convictions and not what the church has been promoting in any way, although we uphold people’s rights to express their views and opinions.”
Mr Cole said many of his congregation supported the Coalition for Marriage petition opposing the Government’s proposals but the church “welcomes everyone of whatever background and persuasion”.
Christopher Quinton, who represents Woodcote on South Oxfordshire District Council, also defected from the Conservatives to UKIP in April 2012 in protest at the party’s plans to legalise gay marriage.
He said: “David Silvester is entitled to voice his views just as anyone else is at liberty to express theirs. I do not concur, though, with his views on what caused the floods and storms.”
A UKIP spokesman said the party had been left with no choice but to suspend Cllr Silvester.
He said: “We cannot have any individual, however high or low profile, making outlandish remarks under the party banner.
“Everyone is entitled to their own religious ideology, which is central to a free and fair society and we would again like to reinforce that Cllr Silvester’s views are his own and in no way reflect the party’s position.
“However, Cllr Silvester has acted contrary to party requests and continued to court the media in order to promote his own personal beliefs. This has caused significant offence to many people and goes against the core principles of UKIP.”
UKIP leader Nigel Farage has said he will order a clearout of “extremist, nasty or barmy” views from the party ahead of European and local elections in May.
Speaking at a question-and-answer session in the City this week, he joked about the “incredibly damaging” effect when “defectors” from the Conservatives join UKIP and say “appalling and outrageous things”.
He added: “I think it is very interesting that, when Mr Silvester was saying these things in 2012 and 2013 as a Conservative town councillor in Henley, it was not a news story.
“Suddenly he switches to UKIP and continues the same thing and gets on the national news. I think that shows you and tells you all you need to know.
“The establishment, the status quo, the big businesses, the big Eurocrats and our three so-called main political parties are scared witless by what UKIP is doing because we are striking a chord, not just for ordinary people but for many elements in the business community as well. They will try to do whatever they can to shoot us down.”
Cllr Silvester also worked as a sports groundsman, when he was elected as a Fellow of the Institute of Groundsmanship, and then as a professional tennis and squash coach. He formed the Henley School of Tennis and Squash.
He was a committee member of the Reading Torch Trust for the Blind, chairman of the Henley Toy Library and a volunteer for 13 years at the Oxfam shops in Henley.
At the Baptist church, he has worked in the Christians Against Poverty budget management team and has served on the Christian Aid Committee.
Cllr Silvester was elected in the south ward of the town council in 2011 with 762 votes. He lost his fight for the Henley South ward on South Oxfordshire District Council at both a 2010 by-election and the local elections the following year.