A church advert quoting Bible texts on homosexuality should not have been banned, says a leading gay rights activist.
Jeff Dudgeon spoke out amid growing controversy concerning a ruling by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) which banned a church advert placed in a Northern Ireland newspaper.
The ad was placed by Sandown Free Presbyterian Church in Belfast and sought to explain the Bible’s teaching on the issue of homosexual practice.
Mr Dudgeon who in 1976 headed a campaign which led to the eventual decriminalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland said he was “not enthusiastic” about the ASA ruling and does not regard such adverts as problematic for the gay community.
He expressed: “There are important freedom of speech issues, especially regarding Christian biblical texts.
And said: “You can waste time fretting about biblical texts rather than getting on with relevant issues – for example, real violence against the gay community.”
Concluding, he stressed that “it is worth taking issue with such an advert, but not trying to get it banned.”
Two senior lawyers have advised the church that the ruling had “gone too far” legally.
The Reverend David McIlveen of Sandown Free Presbyterian Church said: “Two lawyers contacted me to say the Advertising Standards Authority had gone too far and that our advert did not warrant adjudication.
He added: “Both advised taking the matter to a judicial review.”
A legal expert who specialises in sexual orientation and freedom of speech agreed that the ruling could be open to judicial review and said the ASA had got the balance wrong between the two issues.
Dermot Feenan of the University of Ulster School of Law explained that rights to express religious views must be balanced with the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of sexuality.
He said the code used by the regulator prohibits adverts likely to cause serious offence, but the regulator did not show how the offence caused by this advert was “serious” enough to warrant censorship.
Mr Feenan added: “There was no evidential basis for its finding that the ad went further than the majority of its readers were likely to find acceptable.”
An ASA spokeswoman said: “Being offended is a subjective view and matters of taste and decency are always going to be subjective.”
She said the role of the ASA was there “to help define what is and what is not allowed.”
The Advertising Standards Authority received only seven complaints – all but one claiming that the ad would stir up violence against homosexuals. The Authority rejected that charge, but upheld complaints that the ad broke rules about ‘decency’.
It ruled that the ad must not appear again, and told the church to seek advice from the Committee of Advertising Practice before publishing any future marketing material.