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"Movie Theaters Err in Banning Religious Advertising"
Ventura Star, February 22, 2004

By Terry Paulson, PhD

On February 25th, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ will debut in over 2,500 theaters nationwide. The Ash Wednesday opening proves to make this one of the most controversial and memorable Easter seasons in years for Christian believers worldwide.

I have not yet seen the film, but no matter the quality of the movie, the difficulty Mel Gibson has had in bringing his film about the Passion of Christ to viewers is worthy of note. It takes no courage for Hollywood stars and producers to speak out in proclaiming "War Is Not the Answer" or to criticize Bush, Christians or America. By saying such things, the Hollywood faithful get applauded at every cocktail party they attend and every TV talk show they visit. Whether they make money or not, their movies can glorify sex and gratuitous violence and be guaranteed to be touted by a gaggle of fawning media critics. But when a man of strong faith has the courage to put $25 million dollars of his own money into a project that may end his career in Hollywood, the institutions supporting the movie industry do anything but applaud. Like an immune system attacking an unwelcome attack, they have worked to limit this independent film. Mel Gibson is not going to be stopped. This time, Mel Gibson is not just an actor playing a heroic part. He is a man of true courage and faith who is on a mission that will not be denied-He truly is Braveheart!

In the end, the industry will make money on what promises to be a very popular film. Christian churches around the country are promoting the film, buying up tickets and eagerly awaiting the release of this "talked about" movie. But my recent communication with the home office of Mann Theatres in Encino has helped me understand in a small way what Mel Gibson has experienced.

Anticipating the release of the film, I had been told by a local Mann Theatre to contact National Cinema Network about the possibility of doing a pre-feature slide ad for Westlake Lutheran Church. The NCN sales representative was not sure what theaters would have the film but discussed the possibility of a tasteful ad sharing information about our church, our programs and services. She was very helpful.

To clarify some confusion about whether the film was going to be shown locally, I contacted the home office of Mann Theatres by e-mail. A decision had not been made on the film, but what surprised me was their policy regarding theater advertisements: "NCN will most likely inform you that most theatre chains, including our own, have a policy of refraining from running on-screen advertising that focuses on any particular religion/religious establishment. This is a long-standing policy that we stand by for the sake of all of our patrons."

I was shocked. Mann Theatres can show films that glorify drug cultures, violence and sexual promiscuity. They can have ads for corporations, realtors and area service organizations, but no ads for local churches, synagogues or mosques. I can understand not allowing advertising for cigarettes, but I have never felt that protecting people from information about religious establishments has ever been in the best interest of patrons or a community. I thought America was known for freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.

I'm sure that if they allowed religious ads from any faith, there would be some complaints, just as I will receive some complaints for this column. Not all value religious faith. But is not our freedom to responsibly express our differences one of things we cherish most as Americans?

I value people who have passion for their faith and are excited enough about that faith to actually have it shape their behavior. Some people want believers to keep their religion locked in their place of worship. Vital faith was never meant to be limited to churches, synagogues or mosques. Faith is to be lived in one's life. I hope that America remains a society that does not relegate faith to the back room; let it be shared and debated in the public square.

As a private company, Mann Theatres has every right to limit what ads they show. With that comes the responsibility to experience the disappointment of patrons who do not appreciate its policies. I hope Mann Theatres changes their policy and begins to treat religious establishments with the same respect they would give any responsible group. Have guidelines for acceptable religious ads, but don't ban sharing of information about where people can worship God.

Thankfully, not all theater chains share the Mann Theatres policy. The Regal Entertainment Group is eagerly anticipating the release of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ at most of their United Artist and Edwards Theatres. In fact, they even take ads from religious establishments. So this is one movie-loving, regular ticket-buying, popcorn-eating patron that can't wait to go see Mel Gibson's passion for The Passion.

Terry Paulson, Ph.D., of Agoura Hills, CA is a professional speaker on making change work and author of The Dinner: The Political Conversation Your Mother Told You Never to Have.

—Terry Paulson, PhD

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