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Published: Saturday, 12/11/2004

Ad flap puzzles leaders, prompts show of support

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR

"No. Step aside. No way, not you. I don't think so. No."

Muscular doormen in black T-shirts, looking stern and wearing official-looking headset microphones, stand behind a velvet rope, letting some people in and turning others away.

These arbiters of admission are not deciding which patrons can walk into a trendy night club or whether a guest is allowed to join a high-society celebration. They're deciding who can - and who cannot - go to church.

That's the scenario depicted in a 30-second television commercial by the United Church of Christ that was rejected by the CBS and NBC networks as too controversial.

In the commercial, the doormen scene fades to the printed words and a voice-over that says: "Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we."

Officials at the United Church of Christ headquarters in Cleveland said this week that they are still puzzled over what exactly is so controversial about the commercial that two of the major networks would not run it.

"The [network] affiliates had no problem with the ads when we test-marketed them last March," said Barb Powell, a spokesman for the UCC in Cleveland. "We ran the ads in the North, South, East, and West, in rural and urban and suburban markets, and they ran successfully. Based on our experience with the test markets, we had absolutely no idea the networks would have a problem."

The "God Is Still Speaking" ad campaign began running as scheduled on other networks Nov. 30, the start of a $1.7 million television advertising campaign. It is the first phase of a three-year, $30 million ad campaign leading up to 2007, when the UCC, which grew out of four Protestant traditions, celebrates its 50th anniversary, Ms. Powell said.

When NBC and CBS decided at the last minute not to broadcast the commercial, the UCC "redirected" its advertising funds to use the money it had allotted for the two networks, Ms. Powell said, running the commercials on other channels and in other areas of the country. She said church officials were disappointed because they wanted the commercials to be broadcast over as many of the free airwaves as possible, striving to bring their message to people who can't afford to pay for cable or satellite television.

NBC told UCC officials that it has "a longstanding policy against accepting ads dealing with issues of public controversy," and CBS said in a statement to the UCC that because "the 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 on the (CBS and UPN) networks."

Ms. Powell said neither of the networks' explanations makes sense to UCC officials.

"The commercial is not about homosexuality. It is not about a single issue by any means," Ms. Powell said. "There are two men at the beginning of the commercial and two women at the end of the commercial who could be interpreted as gay couples. But they also could be interpreted as not being gay couples."

The CBS reference to an executive branch proposal to amend the Constitution is even more perplexing, Ms. Powell said.

"We have no idea" why the network brought that up, she said. "The commercial has nothing to do with gay marriage and the executive branch doesn't even make amendments to the Constitution. All I can wonder is: Are we living in such times that the networks are so worried and afraid about making waves or doing anything edgy that they felt the need to exclude our commercials from the airwaves? It's an odd time we're living in."

The wave of controversy over the network ban has proved to be "an unexpected blessing," Ms. Powell acknowledged.

The United Church of Christ has received thousands of e-mails and letters of support from people of all faiths, she said. Many who have visited the denomination's Web site, www.ucc.org, have made financial donations to support the ad campaign or have looked for a local UCC church to visit after news of the ban led them to check out the denomination.

The National Council of Churches issued a statement this week supporting the UCC and challenging CBS and NBC, saying the real issue is not the content of the ads but "the arbitrary standards of the network gatekeepers."

Also this week, Pennsylvania-based Mission Broadcasting announced it will run the UCC ad on its 14 stations- including a number of NBC and CBS affiliates - for free.

While there have been some pleasant surprises resulting from the controversy, Ms. Powell said the UCC would have preferred just to have the ads run as scheduled.

"We wish they would have said 'yes' and aired the commercial," she said. "Obviously, it turned into a news story. But it was intended as a Christian message for the Christmas season, a message of 'extravagant welcome,'‚óŹ" to show that all people are welcome at UCC churches.

The denomination, which has 1.3 million members and 6,000 churches in the United States and Puerto Rico, does not have a hierarchy that sets policy for its member churches. Each church is fully autonomous and sets its own rules and guidelines, including its stance on such hot-button issues as homosexuality, Ms. Powell said.

About 550 UCC churches have participated in a Bible study and educational program about homosexuality and voted to become "open and affirming" churches. Another 400 to 500 of the denomination's churches have not conducted the extensive "open and affirming" program but would be considered welcoming to homosexuals Ms. Powell said.

The Rev. Lawrence Cameron, pastor of Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Toledo, said no UCC congregations in Toledo have voted to be official "open and affirming" churches.

"The way the government of the UCC works is that each church is guaranteed freedom and autonomy," Pastor Cameron said. "Some UCC churches that are open and affirming embrace homosexuality and have no problem with it. At the same time, a UCC church can say, 'No, we don't embrace homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle.' There's room at the UCC table for both views."

His West Toledo church is welcoming to homosexuals, he said, but that does not mean it condones homosexuality.

"We embrace and welcome anybody," he said, "and there are certain things that are OK and certain things that harm us. We would say that homosexuality is not a preferred lifestyle."

Pastor Cameron also questioned CBS's comment that the controversial ad "touches on the issue" of homosexuality.

"It's not in any of the ads and I'm not even sure it's implied," he said. "What's implied is that anybody who is normally on the outs of popular society and culture is not on the outs in our churches. The doors are open regardless of where you are coming from. You're welcome here."

The welcome may require a person to make some changes, he added. A mass-murderer, he said for example, would be welcome but would be expected to change his or her behavior.

"We're expected to come in and grow and become better humans," Pastor Cameron said.

Contact David Yonke at:

dyonke@theblade.com or

419-724-6154.



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