Article by Alex White | Herald Sun

BILLBOARDS ridiculing Christian communion wafers and asking if people can flush the Koran down the toilet have been rejected by a major Australian outdoor advertising company.

The ads were to be posted in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane to promote atheist and American author Sam Harris, who is touring in January.

Promoters had planned to run quotes from the top-selling author’s books pasted on black billboards.

One of the four advertisements derided the symbolic communion wafer. “Jesus Christ — who, as it turns out, was born of a virgin, cheated death, and rose bodily into the heavens — can now be eaten in the form of a cracker,” the ad said.

Islam was also in the firing line. “We are now in the 21st century. All books, including the Qur’an, should be fair game for flushing down the toilet without fear of violent reprisal.”

Advertising giant APN Outdoor confirmed it rejected the ads because they did not comply with the Outdoor Media Association’s code of ethics, which states ads cannot include material that vilifies religion.

Think Inc organised Mr Harris’s tour and the $20,000 billboard advertising campaign. Founder Desh Amila denied the billboards vilified religion.

“We were quite surprised,’’ he said. “One can be offended by them but it is a personal opinion. We want to involve people in intellectual dialogue, not vilify,’’ he said. “When it first came back we thought it was someone managing our account not understanding the context. Other similar outdoor campaigns have run without any issues. The whole idea of opening up religion into a conversation is quite important.” He said the refusal was censorship.

Faith Communities council secretary the Rev Ian Smith said the advertising was sloganistic and “intended to incite hatred”

“The one about Muslims is really offensive and that is the intention of it,” he said.

“And the one about Jesus, 90 per cent for the church would be offended, it is belittling, cheapening and shallow.

“I am all for freedom of speech, but not when it is designed to have a violent or negative reaction.

“I don’t think these are to generate a dialogue of understanding. I think that it’s inappropriate when advertising is purely to provoke a response for the promoter and where the statement is intended to be negative.”

Islamic Council of Victoria secretary Kuranda Seyit welcomed the rejection.

“Adverts such as this have no place in our society as they are designed to insult and undermine the harmony we have built in Australia,” he said.

Rationalist Society of Australia president Meredith Doig slammed the move to reject the campaign.

“They do not vilify and they certainly do not discriminate,’’ Dr Doig said. “I know there will be people who are offended, just the same as free thinkers are offended by faith. We (Australia) cannot ban our way out of dealing with controversial issues.” Dr Doig said free speech must be encouraged so people could decide on religion themselves. Mr Harris is known as a polarising figure in the US. He has come under fire in the past for making aggressive anti-religion statements, but he says his comments are meant to spark intelligent debate.

He will be doing a whirlwind three-day tour, speaking in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney on January 22- 24.