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The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has upheld a complaint against a church billboard which read “Jesus Heals Cancer”. The billboard was erected by the charismatic-evangelical Equippers’ Church in Napier:Equippers' Church billboard: Jesus Cures Cancer

The Complaints Board of the ASA ruled that “the statement was provocative enough to be likely to cause serious offence to those people who were dealing with, or knew people who were dealing with, cancer.” The Board added that “the public nature of the billboard was likely to cause widespread offence in the light of generally prevailing community standards.” Furthermore, the Board ruled that the church billboard was in breach of the provision in the Code of Ethics which required “Truthful presentation”, and that “the advertisement was likely to deceive or mislead people.” Although the Board accepted that the church believed that Jesus could heal people from cancer, it ruled that the church’s claim to cure cancer was not substantiated. Contrary to some media headlines, the Board did not go so far as to rule explicitly that Jesus could not cure cancer, but in ruling that the billboard was “likely to deceive or mislead people” implied that the claim was untrue.

What is the ASA? The ASA is merely a private society, its membership comprised of various media and advertising entities. Now, given the propensity of commercial advertisers to tell lies, exaggerate, and annoy the public, just to make a buck, generally speaking it is a good thing that advertisers have got together to self-regulate.

But it’s another thing altogether to issue pronouncements on a local church’s misguided but honestly intended billboard. Who the hell do the ASA board members think they are? Do they think they are New Zealand’s Morality Police, pronouncing on any words they discover littering the landscape? On this occasion, the ASA has stepped way over the line. An organisation that is intended to self-regulate the advertising industry should simply be ignored when it makes pompous pronouncements on a local church’s billboard. If the Equippers’ Church weren’t such pious charismatic evangelicals, they should probably just tell the ASA where to go.

Equippers' Church: Senior Ministers Lyle and DebbieBut is it offensive to cancer sufferers in the neighbourhood? Of course. However, silencing an honest (albeit deluded) church’s proclamation sets a dangerous precedent. Who will be the next minority group to be silenced because their views or behaviour don’t agree with New Zealand’s pragmatic yet passionless middle-class values? While I personally consider that there is as much chance of Jesus healing somebody from cancer as there is for the Earth to start spinning in the other direction, if we don’t defend the right of the ignorant, the atavistic, and even the despicable to peddle their absurd views, we support a system which denies freedom of speech to those minorities who most need it. 

As Noam Chomsky said, in defending a famous French holocaust denier’s right to express his denial of the Jewish holocaust (despite Chomsky’s opinion that holocaust denial was quite incorrect, and the holocaust marked a terrible period in human history): “It is elementary that freedom of expression (including academic freedom) is not to be restricted to views of which one approves, and that it is precisely in the case of views that are almost universally despised and condemned that this right must be most vigorously defended.”

Fortunately, the ASA has no authority to enforce the rulings which they freely promulgate. So, the Equippers’ Church can decide for themselves whether they will use the same billboard again, or whether a different message might be a more persuasive evangelistic tool.