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Churches spar with media over advertising

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channels, but churches and others decried the networks' decisions. CBS and NBC indicate they will accept the next spot in UCC's advertising series.

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"The broadcast networks are not being asked to give free time to the United Church of Christ to express its message - the church is ready to pay dearly for that privi- lege," said the communications commission of the National Council of Churches. "The for-profit keepers of the [public] square are all too willing to promulgate messages laced with sexual innuendo, greed, violence, and the politics of personal destruction, but a message of openness and welcome that merely says 'church doors are open to all' is being silenced as too controversial!"

The UCC has been barraged by thousands of messages, overwhelmingly supportive, in the wake of the action, says Ms. Powell. Preliminary data on the ad's impact on churches will be available in February.

"The press has the right to refuse whatever advertising it wants to; but that doesn't mean it's the right thing to do or the best policy for their relationship to the public," says Charles Haynes of Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center. "Questions could be raised about what is the ethical or civically responsible thing to do in relation to religiously themed ads."

In fact, when the Methodists ran into trouble with Reuters in November 2003, the firm eventually had a change of heart. UMC wanted to run an ad in its "Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors" campaign on the 7,000-square-foot billboard in New York's Times Square. When Reuters said it didn't accept religious or political advertising, there was an outcry.

"We were heartened because Reuters then took a step back and changed their position, providing reasonable guidelines," says Mr. Drachler. The ad ran for two weeks with a disclaimer of paid advertising. Some question that necessity, but others say it's understandable.

"Religion is quite unlike Corn Flakes - it leads to fights," says Dr. Haynes. "Unfortunately, today we are too easily offended in this country, and a lot of media outlets are less concerned about free speech and more about not offending people."

A newspaper bucks the trend

The Colorado Springs Gazette is one newspaper willing to take that chance. Last month, the International Bible Society (IBS) went beyond ads and paid to place copies of the New Testament in the plastic bags in which the Sunday newspaper is distributed to subscribers.

More than 83,000 books went out, causing a stir among other faiths. Some Jewish leaders expressed distress, but the paper received more positive than negative feedback. The publisher said the paper wasn't in the business of stifling ideas, religious or otherwise.

"A newspaper wouldn't back down from a political form of advertisement, so they shouldn't back down from a religious ad or project, " says Bob Jackson, who heads the IBS effort. "We appreciate that attitude of the Gazette."

Religious groups recognize the challenge but say advertising is vital. UMC's campaign brought results: First-time attendance at 160 test churches rose by 19 percent, and overall attendance rose 9 percent between 2000 and 2004, the campaign period. Next week, UMC will announce a $25 million ad effort for 2005-2008.

Meanwhile, UCC has filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission over CBS's and NBC's rejection of its ad. Historically, it has been active in communications issues, winning decisions in the US Supreme Court. "This is another way we're trying to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to be seen and heard in today's media," Powell says.