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CBS and NBC shut door on church ad

In 2004 the United Church of Christ in the USA produced two TV ads underlining their inclusivity and acceptance of "all people", notably gays and lesbians - and the ads were considered too controversial to air by two mainstream networks. Later,the ads aired on CNN, Discovery, and other cable stations.

See the ads
here and here
 (or click on the images).

By Bonnie Miller Rubin and Manya A. Brachear, Tribune staff reporters.
Tribune staff reporter John Cook contributed to this report
Published December 2, 2004 Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune

As church bells chime in the background, a burly bouncer guards the velvet ropes at the church entrance.

"No, step aside, please," he tells two men holding hands. "I don't think so," he says to a young black girl, blocking her entrance. A Hispanic man and a person in a wheelchair also are denied entry.

The scene fades to black and a message: "Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we."

Hoping to boost the numbers of a dwindling denomination, the United Church of Christ launched a nationwide television ad campaign Wednesday, banking on this 30-second spot to let all viewers know they are welcome in the pews.

But two major networks have declined to air the ad, deeming it too controversial because it champions one side of the public debate on gay relationships.

Representatives for both CBS and NBC cited long-standing policies against accepting what is known as issue advertising.

A written explanation that the church received from CBS said the network found the spot unacceptable because it challenges the exclusion of minorities by other institutions and because "the executive branch has recently proposed a Constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman."

United Church of Christ spokeswoman Barb Powell said the church was surprised at the networks' decision.

"They said the ad was proselytizing and advocating a particular viewpoint over another," Powell said. We frankly don't see the ad like that."

Gloria Tristani, managing director of communications for the church and former member of the Federal Communications Commission, argued that the rejection violates the 1st Amendment.

"It's basically telling this church you can't make this appeal," she said. "The 1st Amendment wasn't just about political speech. It was also about freedom of religious expression."

The United Church of Christ, whose membership has fallen from 1.7 million in 1989 to 1.3 million, joins a number of denominations trying to combat that trend with major advertising campaigns.

The United Methodist Church ran a series of commercials earlier this year. But network executives say those ads stayed away from hot-button issues and instead sounded more like public service announcements.

Alan Wolfe, a professor of religion at Boston College, said he was surprised that networks would shy away from a message of inclusiveness.

"CBS and NBC seem to be afraid, not of stirring controversy, but of alienating potential viewers, the kind, moreover, that like to organize boycotts and write letters," Wolfe said. "There may be a new form of political correctness arising in America, one in which attempts are made to avoid violating the sensibilities, not of women or racial minorities, but of conservative Christians."

Though controversial advocacy ads may have seemed inescapable to many television viewers during the recent election season, all of the national broadcast networks have turned such ads away for decades.

Network executives have previously explained the policy by saying they did not want wealthy advocates to dominate public debate on the airwaves.

Cable networks and local stations, however, tend to have less restrictive policies and often air such ads.

Randy Weissman, the Tribune's deputy managing editor for operations, said the newspaper accepts advocacy ads as long as they are not obscene and contain the name of the organization buying the ad.

On Wednesday, TV executives accused the United Church of Christ of seeking publicity by submitting an ad that was likely to be rejected so the group could accuse the networks of censorship. They pointed out that another United Church of Christ ad, featuring many of the same actors, was accepted for broadcast by CBS and NBC.

But the United Church of Christ said the rejection of the "bouncer" ad caught them off guard. Focus groups had responded positively to the commercial, and in six test markets--including Cleveland, where the church is based--attendance increased by 25 percent, Powell said.

When Rev. Richard Lanford, pastor at St. Peter's United Church of Christ in Skokie, saw the commercial a few months ago at a national training session, he came away impressed with the fact that "it didn't hammer you over the head."

"The goal was to reach out to people who either fell away or people who felt not really welcome, for whatever reason, and I think it accomplished that," he said.

But Lanford concedes the sneak preview raised some concerns.

"I knew it was edgy and not everyone was there yet," he said. "I thought some individuals and some churches might have a problem, but it never occurred to me that it would be the networks who would say, `Too hot!'"

Peter LaBarbera, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, gave a strong thumbs up to the networks' decision.

He said that in the late 1990s, conservative groups wanted to run a commercial featuring "ex-homosexuals who had been converted back to being heterosexuals." Under pressure from gay-rights groups, the networks refused to accept the spots.

"At least they're being consistent," LaBarbera said.

Karl Maurer, vice president of Catholic Citizens of Illinois, also endorsed the networks' stand, calling the commercials "false advertising."

"When the Roman soldiers in the Gospel came to Jesus and said, `How can I be saved?' Jesus did not respond, `Be inclusive.' Jesus responded, "Follow the commandments.'"

The ads with the bouncer have been cleared to air on a number of cable channels, including ABC Family, AMC, BET, Discovery, Hallmark, History, Nick at Nite, TBS and TNT.

It also was accepted to air on Fox, whose spokesman said the network does not have a blanket policy against issue ads and judges each on a case-by-case basis.

"It's not an advocacy ad," Scott Grogin said of the bouncer commercial. "It's saying, `We're an inclusive church.'"

ABC spokeswoman Julie Hoover declined to say whether the network had accepted the ad but said ABC "does not generally accept paid advertising that espouses a particular religious doctrine."

Rev. Jane Fisler Hoffman, minister of the Illinois conference of the United Church of Christ, said an effort is under way to mobilize the 294 congregations in northern Illinois to raise funds to air the ad through local network affiliates.

"Some people have experienced painful rejection in some churches," she said. "We're not trying to criticize or critique anybody. We believe our church should be welcoming all people, not turning anybody away."

Dignity Canada Dignité is Canada's organization of Roman Catholics who are concerned about our church's sexual theology, particularly as it pertains to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons. We work in collaboration with other Catholic organizations seeking reform in our church's leadership and teachings.

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