ESPN has reversed its decision banning a Christmas commercial from a Catholic children’s hospital because of its religious content -- a stunning reversal in the face of widespread outrage from Christians.
The sports programming juggernaut had originally passed on the ad because it included references to God and celebrating the birth of Christ, officials at the Cardinal Glennon Children’s Foundation in Missouri, which provides financial support for the hospital, told me.
“ESPN came back to us and said it was denied due to religious advocacy,” said Dan Buck, executive director of the foundation. “We were disappointed and dumbfounded with their decision.”
But a few minutes after my original story on the issue was published, ESPN had a change of heart.
“We have again reviewed the ads submitted for the SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and have concluded that we will accept the original requested commercial,” read a statement from ESPN. “It will run in Saturday’s VCU at Northern Iowa basketball game on ESPNU. This decision is consistent with our practice of individual review of all ads under our commercial advocacy standards.”
Here’s the actual script of the ad that ESPN rejected:
"At SSM Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center, we celebrate the birth of Jesus and the season of giving, bringing hope to the many children, parents, and families that we serve. Our patients are filled with hope as they receive a message each day from the treasure chest beneath our tree of hope. Help us reveal God’s healing presence this Christmas. Send your message of hope at Glennon.org."
When the foundation learned that ESPN had rejected the ad, they asked them to reconsider and then advised them to consult with executive channels at the network. But their decision at first remained unchanged.
“They said, ‘Yes, it is denied,’” Buck said. “They told us the lines about ‘Celebrate the birth of Jesus and ‘Help us reveal God’s healing message’ are problematic. That’s a quote from them.”
Buck told me it’s the first time in the history of their organization that anyone has challenged their faith beliefs.
“We’ve been around since 1956,” he said. “No one has ever complained or said that our message couldn’t be told.”
Buck said ESPN is a private entity and has every right to determine what kind of commercials it airs. At the same time, he said the children’s hospital was not prepared to turn away from their faith.
“We do celebrate the birth of Jesus at Cardinal Glennon,” he told me. “It’s who we are. It’s an engrained part of who we are. We’re very proud of our faith heritage and we promote that. We let people know that we pray for our children.”
Meanwhile, the network’s original decision generated a firestorm of criticism from religious liberty supporters.
“It’s totally ridiculous,” said attorney Doug Napier with Alliance Defending Freedom. “To say there’s too much Jesus in a Christmas message is like saying there’s too much sports in ESPN.”
As a private organization ESPN can do whatever they want, he added.
“But they’re not only taking Jesus out of the Christmas message, they’re taking Christmas out of the Christmas message,” he said.