CBS, NBC reject 'controversial' church ad
One network links its ban to a proposed constitutional amendment on the
definition of marriage.
By SHIRLEY RAGSDALE
REGISTER RELIGION EDITOR
December 2, 2004
CBS and NBC have refused to air a United Church of Christ advertisement, deeming the 30-second commercial "too controversial" because of its depiction of gay couples at a time when the Bush administration has called for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
The move outraged Des Moines-area United Church of Christ church leaders, one of whom said the networks were afraid of the reaction of evangelical Christians who oppose gay marriage.
The $1.7 million campaign to attract people to the denomination was launched Wednesday. Although CBS and NBC rejected them, the ads will be broadcast on Fox and several cable networks.
The ads are part of a national effort to inform the public that the denomination welcomes all people, regardless of ability, age, race, economic circumstance or sexual orientation. Billboards, posters and banners that are part of the campaign can be seen in the Des Moines area, and advertisements have appeared in Des Moines alternative weekly newspapers.
"I find it tragic and ironic that on World AIDS Day, we are again facing a wall of annihilating silence from those who wish to extinguish the message of welcome and inclusion," said the Rev. Michael Pater, pastor of Urbandale United Church of Christ. "We hoped this campaign would let people know they are welcome to our congregation. We have mixed-race families, divorced people, men, women, people who are sick, people with disabilities and same-sex couples. All it says is that Jesus doesn't turn people away, and neither do we."
CBS has a longstanding policy against accepting advocacy or issue-oriented ads, according to Jeremy Murphy, a spokesman for the network.
In the rejection slip sent to United Church of Christ headquarters in Cleveland, the network wrote: "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 has recently proposed a Constitutional Amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, this spot is unacceptable for broadcast."
A rejection letter from NBC to church officials declared the spot was "too controversial." NBC network officials did not return calls Wednesday from a Des Moines Register reporter.
The commercial, which can be viewed online at www.stillspeaking.org, features two muscular bouncers standing guard outside a church and choosing whom to allow into services. Among those rejected are people of color and a same-sex couple.
Written text interrupts the scene, announcing, "Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we." A narrator then proclaims the United Church of Christ's commitment to Jesus Christ's welcome: "No matter who you are, or where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here."
The rejection of the ads is the "height of hypocrisy," according to the Rev. David Ruhe, pastor of Des Moines' Plymouth Congregational, United Church of Christ.
"The God is Still Speaking campaign is aimed at an audience of people who have felt excluded from churches for a variety of reasons," Ruhe said. "I see nothing whatsoever controversial in this. We want to suggest to people who have given up on church, that church hasn't given up on them. If that is controversial, then it's precisely the type of controversy in which the Gospel calls us to engage."
Of CBS and NBC, Ruhe said, "They're afraid of a big evangelical backlash. I'm appalled that these networks can find controversy in ads that invite people to church, when these same networks have gladly fattened themselves for months by airing a host of half-truths in the form of political commercials that attack, degrade and demean."
According to CBS's Murphy, none of this year's political advocacy commercials were aired nationally. Those negative political ads targeted swing states and were accepted by local affiliates, not the national network.
A broadcaster is free to accept or reject any advertisement, according to Barbara Mack, Iowa State University professor. However, she would not see a broadcaster's acceptance of the ad as an endorsement any more than "I would see a McDonald's ad being in praise of fast food."
"This would cut against the myth of the liberal bias of the media," Mack said. "It would seem that they are afraid of a backlash from conservative voters. However, they are within their rights to do it."
The Rev. John Wilson, a Presbyterian minister in Kamrar who also serves a United Church of Christ Church in Blairsburg, believes CBS and NBC made the right decision.
"What the United Church of Christ is doing is giving support to a unnatural lifestyle that leads to poor health and, ultimately, death. I'd be the first to say to a homosexual, 'I love you dearly, but what you are doing is wrong.'
"Don't blame the networks for having the same views as a large percentage of the U.S. population that has spoken against same-sex marriage," he said.
Heather Sawyer, lawyer with the Chicago office of Lambda Legal, a national gay rights organization, said she is disappointed with the decisions by CBS and NBC.
"The airwaves should be and must be public," Sawyer said. "There are limited reasons, such as obscenities, for a network to refuse advertisements. This ad doesn't fall into that category."
The Rev. Robert Chase, director of the United Church of Christ's national community ministry, found it disturbing that the networks have no problem exploiting gays through "mindless comedies or titillating dramas, but when it comes to a church's loving welcome of committed gay couples, that's where they draw the line."
Andrew Schwartzman, president of the not-for-profit Media Access Project in Washington, D.C., believes CBS and NBC are abusing broadcasters' duty to inform viewers on issues of importance to the community.
The ad was tested in six U.S. television markets last spring. During that time, the denomination's national offices were flooded with supportive letters and e-mail messages, officials said.
Pater, pastor of the Urbandale church, was part of the ad campaign's development and training team.
"I first showed it to a group of 50 people here, and when it ended, there were tears in the eyes of many who said they were proud of their church," Pater said. "Many people have been excluded somewhere else. This is not just a sexual-orientation issue. Men and women are turned away because of their poverty, ethnicity, because they do not believe in Bible literalism, because they want to be progressive Christians."
Jonathan Wilson, a Des Moines lawyer who is gay, said the ad represents his own experience with organized religion.
"The people being turned away, as portrayed in that ad, has sadly been my experience with much of the organized church," Wilson said. "I think it is a testimony to the value of the ad that those establishment network agencies would consider it so controversial. That's what Jesus' ministry was - controversial."
Register staff writer Elizabeth Owens contributed to this article.
United Church of Christ
The United Church of Christ denomination has 6,000 congregations and 1.3 million members. The denomination's congregations are autonomous, but remaining strongly in covenant with regional and national bodies. The denomination is known for its activist positions, including early opposition to slavery, being the first mainline Protestant denomination to ordain an African-American pastor in 1785, the first to ordain a woman in 1853, and the first to ordain an openly gay man in 1987. For more information, go to www.ucc.org
***ABC is not running the add b/c they do not run reiligous adds
Who will run the ad?
CBS and NBC television networks have refused to run a 30-second television commercial from United Church of Christ. The ad will be broadcast on FOX and cable networks ABC Family (*** I Maybe wrong, i dunno), AMC, BET, Discovery, Hallmark, History, Nick@Nite, TBS, TNT, Travel and TV Land.
To see the commercial in question, go to www.stillspeaking.org