That cinema advert

In last Sunday’s round-up we indicated the potential for a major row over the refusal of leading cinemas to show a 60-second advertisement based on The Lord’s Prayer; this was due to be shown from December 18 2015 as part of the ad reel before Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And verily as prophesied, there was a media storm both supportive and critical, including the comments of the Prime Minister who viewed the ban as “ridiculous”, according to his spokesperson although s/he declined to expand on the PM’s views.

In due course, the Equality and Human Rights Commission issued its own statement:

“Freedom to hold a religion and freedom to express ideas are essential British values. We are concerned by any blanket ban on adverts by all religious groups. Digital Cinema Media have said an advert could cause offence to those of differing faiths or without belief. There is no right not to be offended in the UK; what is offensive is very subjective and lies in the eye of the beholder. This does not mean groups or individuals are free to express themselves without restriction.  Freedom of expression can be and is restricted but only in order to prevent violence, abuse or discrimination for example. There is nothing in law that prevents Christian organisations promoting their faith through adverts.”

It is undoubtedly correct of the EHRC to deny that there is any kind of “right not to be offended”. However, we rather doubt that the ban falls foul of the law, at least as we understand it. If the British Board of Film Classification had refused to give the advert a certificate or if one or more local authorities had banned its showing locally, then presumably those decisions would have been reviewable by the courts. But for a private organisation – as opposed to a public one – to refuse to accept political or religious advertising across the board, without any degree of discrimination between particular religious or political groups, seems to us to be rather a different matter. But whatever one’s view of the law, last week’s events are unlikely to be the end of the controversy.


Today The Times reported that social media sites, including Facebook and YouTube, had recorded 493,000 views of the 57-second film, while an estimated 100,000 people had watched it on media and other websites in Britain and abroad – so the impact may have been greater than if it were to be shown in cinemas and audiences “just munched on their popcorn and ignore it”, to paraphrase Giles Fraser’s comments.

Since the objective of the advertisement was to raise the awareness of prayer and the Church’s initiative, this appears to have been achieved – albeit through unexpected means. Perhaps the Church of England should now just move on and capitalize on its undoubted success: otherwise, there is the danger of it “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory”.


The afternoon, churchstate tweeted that tomorrow, 25th November, the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Rev Stephen Cottrell, will ask a question in the House of Lords on the Lord’s Prayer, JustPray cinema advert.

The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford to ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the freedom of religious and non-religious organisations to express their beliefs in the public sphere, in the light of the decision by Digital Cinema Media not to accept advertisements from the Church of England”.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "That cinema advert" in Law & Religion UK, 24 November 2015,

18 thoughts on “That cinema advert

  1. I agree that now the advertisement for praying has been seen widely on social media the additional impact in the cinema would be a negligible addition to its probably negligible impact on social media. I am sure some Christians, smarting from the “no gays in my hotel” and “I insist on wearing a cross in my work place” kind of press nonsense, will have suffered raised blood pressure from this trivial spat but the impact on Church attendance, I predict, also will be negligible. The brutal fact that praying always has and always will have no measurable effect in the universe will still be obvious to those with eyes to see.

    I don’t much care for present day cinema but in general it would be nice to go to a place of entertainment and not be bothered by religion (particularly if the religious are holding AK47s). If I want to know about Christianity or Islam or Jehovah’s Witness-ism I know where the Churches, Mosques or Kingdom Halls are.

    Knocking on my door or putting propaganda in inappropriate places is unlikely to endear me to these faiths.

    • I find Alan Rogers’ response rather strange. It is reasonable enough to consider it bothersome to have to sit through any form of advertising. But advertising is a necessary means of funding cinema. A religious advertisement which is perfectly consistent with liberal democratic values is hardly any more bothering to anyone without a specific prejudice against religion than one for cornflakes. As for the effect of prayer, there is plenty of evidence that those who pray find it a positive experience – even if others may not or don’t try it. Whether prayer has a material effect on other people or events can not be proved one way or the other, any more than the existence of God, although as Archbishop William Temple commented, coincidences seemed to happen when he prayed but they were not so evident when he stopped. But then religion is similar to a musical production or an art exhibition. Some will enjoy them and see them as providing a worthwhile experience and indeed a way into a deeper “truth”. Others could not be bothered. They may find some examples offensive and may consider that they give a false version of reality but that would be no justification for banning advertisements for all artistic events. It would be particularly curious in the cinema where much of the advertising consists of trailers for other films – but then of course some of them may be rather offensive to part of the audience for the trailer.

  2. It would be interesting to hear the author’s view on the parallels with the Ashers bakery case. While the Church of England should avoid issuing proceedings out of pique, it would be useful to know what the courts think as to where the balance now lies and there is a good case for proceedings to be brought because of the lack of legal certainty in this area. In the Ashers case, there was presumably no policy against supporting political or religious causes whereas DCM does have such a policy. If the law now protects businesses from claims of discrimination where a DCM-style policy is in place then knowing this will be an eminently useful development. It will, of course, be interesting to see whether DCM has applied its policy consistently bearing in mind the breadth of the prohibition against religious discrimination, including as it does all belief systems which affect our choices – even atheistic ones.

    • As to Ashers Bakery, we’ll see what happens when the appeal judgment is handed down. But I agree that it would be interesting to see “where the balance now lies”.

  3. “But for a private organisation – as opposed to a public one – to refuse to accept political or religious advertising across the board, without any degree of discrimination between particular religious or political groups, seems to us to be rather a different matter.”

    Doesn’t this potentially constitute indirect discrimination by a service provider against those with religious beliefs in general, in the terms of the Equality Act? On the basis that religious people as a group are disadvantaged by being prevented from placing advertisements on a subject of direct interest to them, compared with others who don’t share their beliefs.

    • Potentially, perhaps it does. But I’d have thought that there was at least a tenable argument either that enforcing a general rule of not accepting religious or political advertising of any kind was so broad as not to be discriminatory against any particular individual or group or that if indirect discrimination had in fact taken place it was justified as a general rule, insofar as it prevented the placing of advertisements that were likely to cause offence or annoyance without discriminating between one originator and another.

      But it’s a grey area and we’ll find out one way or another if it ever gets to court.

  4. When I pay my £5 (or so) to see a James Bond film, I want to here the words of James Bond, and not the words of bloody Jesus. That is what I have paid for. If I wanted that sort of thing, I would go to a church and hear it, AND I WOULDN’T HAVE TO PAY FOR IT EITHER.

  5. It would be interesting to know what other cinema advertising content Mr Aldridge (whom I assume intends ‘bloody Jesus’ as an oath rather than as a reference to his crucifixion – but perhaps I misjudge him?) objects to…
    However, I want to inject a theological note into this. The ad is nicely-judged, not proselytising, and has been welcomed by many of other faiths and none. But most comment so far has assumed that the Lord’s Prayer is familiar, comfortable, anodyne, common ground, and causes no offence. What if we were to recognise that in many ways it is in fact a radical prayer that challenges our assumptions about justice, peace, the kingdom and so on?

  6. Hartedavid thinks an evangelical religious advertisement much the same as an advertisement for cornflakes.
    He reinforces my view of organised religion as the “religion industry”.
    It sells a product which is a set of beliefs.
    It targets children (much as the tobacco industry did until curtailed) because they are much more susceptible to its promotional efforts .
    It attempts to obtain taxpayer money to further its operations (as grants or as tax-relief) as does the arms industry.
    Many of its operatives are employed using taxpayers’ money (RE teachers, theology lecturers, chaplains in hospitals, prisons and the armed services).
    It advertises its product just like the breakfast cereal manufacturers. (Thank you Hartedavid)
    The leading brand in the UK owns fixed assets as multi-billion pound investments.
    The leading brand in the UK employs, as CEO, a man head hunted from the oil industry.
    It has a huge ongoing Parliamentary lobbying operation which dwarfs even that of the arms industry. A major part of this are the 26 seats reserved in the Upper House for its equivalent of a Board of Directors of the UK leading brand.
    It is a huge and influential industry with many brands, some being global brands.
    I think the term “religion industry” is highly appropriate.
    Now what was that about “meek and mild” which I was required to sing at school?
    Alan Rogers

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  8. This discussion is rather going outside the scope of legal analysis of the legal framework for balancing the rights of those with differing beliefs but Alan Rogers does raise important questions as to how equal rights, notably for freedom of expression, can be balanced.

    Analogies always have limitations. My comparison of a cornflakes advertisement with one presenting a message about a particular belief is to some extent confirmed by Alan. For the non-believer a belief is simply another material product – though as I went on the suggest perhaps more like an advertisement for a concert than for a food product. The difficulty is that some products may be harmful but there are differences of opinion over which and how harmful they are.

    Mercifully we are unlikely to have armament advertisements in our cinemas – though I don’t know about the US! On the other hand, advertisements for tobacco are banned and others for many material products, from alcohol to cars, could be challenged. But the approach of English law in controlling such advertisements is cautious. Restrictions on tobacco advertisements are an exception. Political parties raise distinctive issues because of the danger of moneyd interests skewing the democratic process. By contrast, an atheist advertisement on the side of a bus or a prayer in a cinema seem to me reasonable examples of freedom of expression which should not be restricted, whether one agrees with them or dislikes them.

    I take Frank’s point that the provider of goods or services may have problems with a particular topic and may be able to restrict its activity in general terms as: by refusing to publish advertisements which promote any belief apart from the desirability of a particular material product, by not putting any form of message on the icing of their bakeries or by letting only single bedrooms in a B and B. Nevertheless there remain questions in enforcing equality as to the division between private and public, particularly where a provider has a monopoly position.

    However, I would add that, generally, provided a customer is not demanding anything harmful, that customer’s relative wealth and whether one likes or dislikes it should be irrelevant.

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