Regardless of where you stand on this issue...I think this censorship is disturbing...

Two networks bar church ad welcoming gays
By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff | December 2, 2004

Two broadcast networks are refusing to air an ad from the United Church of Christ because the spot, intended to make the point that the Protestant denomination is welcoming, briefly shows two men who are holding hands being turned away from an unnamed church.

CBS and NBC both described the spot as too controversial. In a letter to the denomination, a CBS official said, ''Because this commercial touches on the exclusion of gay couples and other minority groups by other individuals and organizations, and the fact that the Executive Branch [the Bush Administration] has recently proposed a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, this spot is unacceptable for broadcast."

The United Church of Christ has 1.3 million members nationally and 94,000 in Massachusetts. Like other mainline Protestant denominations, it has been struggling with declining membership, and the national church is launching an advertising campaign in an effort to reach out to people who do not go to church.

In an interview yesterday, the president of research for NBC, Alan Wurtzel, said the spot ''violated a longstanding policy of NBC, which is that we don't permit commercials to deal with issues of public controversy." Wurtzel, who is in charge of broadcast standards at the network, said such issues should be handled by the news department and not in advertising.

''The problem is not that it depicted gays, but that it suggested clearly that there are churches that don't permit a variety of individuals to participate," Wurtzel said. ''If they would make it just a positive message -- 'we're all-inclusive' -- we'd have no problem with that spot."

A CBS spokesman, Dana McClintock, said, ''We have a longstanding policy of not accepting advocacy advertising."

Earlier this year, CBS rejected a Super Bowl ad critical of President Bush produced by MoveOn.org.

In the letter from the CBS official to the United Church of Christ, the network said it refuses advertising that ''touches on and/or takes a position on one side of a current controversial issue of public importance."

McClintock did not specify what CBS believes the church ad is advocating, but the network's letter cited the depiction of the exclusion of gays and minorities and said, ''in our view, this commercial does proselytize," which violates another network prohibition against proselytizing for ''any single religion."

That reasoning was rejected by church officials and their supporters.

''All ads are advocacy; what else is an advertisement if not an opportunity to advocate for your toothpaste or your cause?" said the Rev. Nancy S. Taylor, president of the Massachusetts conference of the United Church of Christ, the largest Protestant denomination in the state. ''The ads are about hospitality and a wide welcome. And how that is controversial -- I find that extraordinary. We are stunned."

Taylor said the ad is not intended to criticize other denominations. She said she showed the ad to members of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, an umbrella organization of Protestant and Orthodox churches, where it drew no criticism.

Homosexuality is one of the most hotly debated subjects in the world of religion. Some denominations -- including the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and Reform Judaism -- support same-sex marriage, which became legal in Massachusetts this year...NBC and CBS said they had accepted another spot from the United Church of Christ that did not show people being turned away from a church.

The ABC broadcast network does not accept any religious advertising, but the company accepted the spot for airing on ABC Family, a cable channel.

The FOX broadcasting network has accepted the spot.

''The spot that was submitted meets with our standards," said spokesman Scott Grogin.

The ad was test-marketed in the spring in several markets, including Springfield, where it aired on network affiliates, including WWLP-TV (Channel 22), an NBC affiliate.

''There was not a bit" of controversy, said the Rev. Ian R. Lynch, pastor of First Congregational Church in Brimfield. ''There's nothing overt in the ad that says anything about homosexuality, and now that's what seems to be the big issue. We're wanting to be hospitable, and it's a sad statement that that's controversial."

The rejected ad is a 30-second spot that depicts two burly male bouncers standing guard outside a church and choosing who will be allowed to pass a velvet rope and enter. Among those turned away are two men holding hands and several nonwhite people.

The ad's text says: ''Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we." It then cuts to a scene of an ethnically diverse crowd of smiling people, including two women, one of whom has her hand on the other's shoulder, as a voice-over says: ''The United Church of Christ. No matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, you're welcome here."

The ad makes no printed or verbal mention of homosexuality.

''Network television does not like controversy," said Robert J. Thompson, the director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. ''They don't want to do anything that could possibly incite boycotts or advertiser pullouts. And I could see why network TV would be uncomfortable airing an ad with a benign message, because what happens when a less benign message, perhaps from a fringe religious group, comes along?"

CBS and NBC notified the United Church of Christ of their concerns about the spots in February and March. The denomination says it has been attempting since then to negotiate with the networks, but the denomination also chose to make the rejections public yesterday, on the same day it launched its national campaign to shore up its identity.

The spots will air on multiple cable channels and could air on local network affiliates. The campaign also has radio and print components highlighting the denomination's desire to welcome newcomers.

Half of the 424 United Church of Christ congregations in Massachusetts have signed up to promote the campaign by placing ads in local publications or placing lawn signs or banners at their churches. Old South Church, in Copley Square, hopes to place ads in MBTA stations.

''We're running the ads in the Arlington Advocate and on local Comcast and on regional RCN," said the Rev. Lisa W. Stedman, interim minister at Pleasant Street Congregational Church in Arlington, referring to the same spot rejected by the networks. ''I'm stunned that the networks think this is too controversial, given the wide array of things that they do run on television."

The network rejection drew fire from the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry, a Massachusetts group of clergy and congregations supporting same-sex marriage, which called the rejection ''an attack on freedom of religion in this country and [an] outrageous case of censorship."

''How are gay and lesbian people to secure equal rights if the television stations refuse to allow them to be depicted partaking in the most elementary aspects of our society, such as attending worship services?" asked Rabbi Devon Lerner, coalition cochairman. ''Ironically, while CBS and NBC consider gay families entering churches to be too controversial to air, CBS and NBC have no problem airing misleading stereotypes of gays and lesbians in sitcoms and airing sensational clips of gays and lesbians during news features."

Ralph G. Neas, president of the People for the American Way Foundation, issued a statement declaring, ''It is beyond troubling, it is downright dangerous that the American ideal of inclusion is too 'controversial' for a network news broadcast because it conflicts with the political agenda of the White House."

A spokesman for the Federal Communications Commission said the networks are within their rights to reject the ad.

''There are no FCC rules on advertising, with the exception of indecency," said David Fiske, the FCC spokesman. ''The networks have always had some form of department that deals with advertising and program standards, and they make those decisions."

But the rejections occurred as the networks are particularly sensitive to criticism.

''We live in extremely delicate media times right now, and I think that the networks are under more scrutiny than ever before," said J. Max Robins, editor-in-chief of Broadcasting & Cable magazine.

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