The Church of England has come out swinging against major UK cinema chains and Digital Cinema Media, which handles most of the country’s movie advertising. At issue: The church says it had planned to buy screen time for a 60-second commercial to run ahead of Star Wars: The Force Awakens beginning December 18 in UK movie houses. The ad, a trailer for its new Just Pray website that features the Lord’s Prayer, was given clearance by the Cinema Advertising Authority and the British Board of Film Classification, according to the church. However, it said Sunday, “The country’s three largest cinema chains Odeon, Cineworld and Vue — who control 80% of cinema screens around the country — have refused to show the advert because they believe it ‘carries the risk of upsetting, or offending, audiences.’”

church of england 1This has led to handwringing over whether this is a justified commercial consideration on the part of the exhibitors or, as the church sees it, a violation of discrimination laws and a “rather chilling” decision “in terms of limiting free speech.”

Prime Minister David Cameron’s office said today that he found the refusal to run the ad “ridiculous,” while London Mayor Boris Johnson said he expects a U-turn. A senior studio exec tells me they are “feeling pretty agnostic about it — except to say how odd of the circuits to ban an ad on religious grounds. Saw in 3D perfectly acceptable.”

The cinemas say there is no place for political or religious ads that “could cause offence.” There was some blowback from moviegoers last year when the Odeon chain showed pro and con ads on the referendum for Scottish independence. But when it comes to religion, there’s not much precedent here. This is the first time the church has tried to get an ad into theaters.

Rev. Arun Arora, Director of Communications for the church, tells me the group never has attempted to advertise in such a way before. They wanted to do it now “because the advert pointed to a site we are launching about the renewal of prayer. … If you’re going to promote your product, why wouldn’t you get into the biggest cultural media event of the year? Star Wars is that; it’s a multi-generational event. Why wouldn’t we want to be in the ad reel?” The church has threatened legal action.

The exhibitors are for the moment staying mum. One I contacted did not want to speak on or off the record and instead referred me to DCM, which has yet to respond.

Arora contends that the DCM originally offered the church a substantial discount for the advertisement when negotiations began this summer. He says he was informed of the policy later but was told it didn’t exist in written form at the time. (It is currently available online.)

DCM tweeted the following Sunday, “DCM has a policy of not accepting ‘political or religious advertising’ content for use in its cinemas. Some advertisements — unintentionally or otherwise — could cause offence to those of differing political persuasions … as well as to those of differing faiths and indeed of no faith. In this regard DCM treats all political or religious beliefs equally.”

The reaction to the current situation has been mixed in Britain. The spokesperson for Downing Street told a media briefing that Prime Minister David Cameron thinks the refusal to show the ad is “ridiculous” did not elaborate.

During his #AskBoris Twitter session today, London Mayor Boris Johnson was queried as to his opinion on the “ban.” He responded:

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

The National Secular Society described DCM’s position as a “perfectly reasonable decision” by a commercial organization. According to The Guardian, 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. … The cinema chains are simply exercising the same right.”

Either way, the weekend’s events certainly have brought ample attention to the C of E and its campaign. Arora tells me he would have preferred the ad begin running on December 18 with all the attendant social media at that time. “The fundamental point is that seven days before Christmas, the church wanted to launch an ad about prayer. At the same point as being banned, cinemas will embrace supermarkets and car makers and others who will exploit the Christian festival of Christmas to sell their wares.”

What do you think? Do religious ads have a place in cinemas?