Vociferous critic of religion says anyone thin-skinned enough to be offended by church advert deserves to be offended
The Church of England has received unlikely backing from the biologist and prominent atheist Richard Dawkins after the UK’s three leading cinema chains refused to screen its advert featuring the Lord’s Prayer.
The 60-second advert was due to be shown before Star Wars: the Force Awakens, released on 18 December, which would have guaranteed it a huge cinema audience in the run-up to Christmas.
But the Odeon Cineworld and Vue chains, which control 80% of screens around the country, have refused to allow it because of a policy not to allow political or religious advertising.
The decision prompted an angry response from the church, which warned of a chilling effect on free speech. Many expressed support for its position including Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist best known for excoriating religions.
He told the Guardian: “My immediate response was to tweet that it was a violation of freedom of speech. But I deleted it when respondents convinced me that it was a matter of commercial judgment on the part of the cinemas, not so much a free speech issue. I still strongly object to suppressing the ads on the grounds that they might ‘offend’ people. If anybody is ‘offended’ by something so trivial as a prayer, they deserve to be offended.”
Dawkins has been a long time advocate for free speech, arguing that protecting religious sensibilities is not a reason for censorship. And despite attracting controversy over his views on religion, the author of the God Delusion has previously described himself as a “cultural Anglican”.
The advert he was defending is to promote a new Church of England website, JustPray.uk, which encourages people to pray. The film shows Christians, beginning with the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, saying one line of the Lord’s Prayer. The following lines are said by a diverse range of people including weightlifters, a police officer, a commuter, refugees in a support centre, schoolchildren, a mourner at a graveside and a festivalgoer.
The Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, also an atheist, rejected the idea of the advert causing offence. She wrote on Twitter: “As a gentle atheist, I’m not offended by Church screening gentle cinema adverts; we shouldn’t reject our deep cultural roots in Christianity.”
The assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, told the Mail on Sunday he was “flabbergasted that anyone would find this prayer offensive to anybody, including people of no particular religious belief”.
But the church did not win universal backing with the National Secular Society describing it as a “perfectly reasonable decision” by a commercial organisation.
The society’s president Terry Sanderson, said: “The Church of England is arrogant to imagine it has an automatic right to foist its opinions upon a captive audience who have paid good money for a completely different experience.
“The Church does not hesitate to ban things that it deems inappropriate from its own church halls – things like yoga. The cinema chains are simply exercising the same right.”
Digital Cinema Media, which handles most cinema advertising in the UK, told the church it has a policy “not to run advertising connected to personal beliefs, specifically those related to politics or religion. Our members have found that showing such advertisements carries the risk of upsetting, or offending, audiences.”
DCM added that it had received “considerable negative feedback from audiences” to adverts from both sides in the lead up to the Scottish independence referendum.
Stephen Slack, the church’s chief legal adviser, warned banning the advert could “give rise to the possibility of legal proceedings” under the Equality Act which bans commercial organisations from refusing services on religious grounds.
Arun Arora, director of communications for the Church of England, said: “The prospect of a multigenerational cultural event offered by the release of Star Wars: the Force Awakens on 18 December – a week before Christmas Day – was too good an opportunity to miss and we are bewildered by the decision of the cinemas.
“In one way the decision of the cinemas is just plain silly but the fact that they have insisted upon it makes it rather chilling in terms of limiting free speech. There is still time for the cinemas to change their mind and we would certainly welcome that.”
He urged people to visit the JustPray.uk website to view the film and and make up their own minds as to whether it was upsetting or offensive.
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