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21 December 2015

Healing and the Advertising Standards Authority

Healing and the Advertising Standards Authority

Wherever I go these days I am hearing more and more stories of people coming to faith and of people being healed. The interruption of the supernatural into our evermore rational world has led to some problems between various healing ministries and the Advertising Standards Agency. The Committee of Advertising Practice says "the ASA does not arbitrate between conflicting ideologies". However, the ASA has insisted that any public advertising of the historic Christian belief that God is able to heal people physically must be prohibited. They have advised: "Religious organisations may make claims about healing only if it is clear that they are referring to spiritual, not physical, healing."

The Alliance has worked hard over a number of years in discussions with the ASA to help them to understand the particular nature of the Christian faith and Christian healing in particular. Despite these efforts, the ASA views faith healing in the same context as pharmaceutical products and
beauty therapies, which require a high level of scientific proof for healing claims. It also views such claims under guidance for marketing spiritual and psychic services.  The ASA ultimately refused to work with the Alliance to find an acceptable way forward that met the concerns of both sides.

Based on previous discussions with the ASA and adjudications it has made, we can offer the following advice. Be aware:

1. The codes relating to advertising healing, including events where prayer for healing is offered, are complex and ambiguous. Unfortunately, it's therefore not possible to offer clear legal advice. Clarity is a rarity at the present time.

2. The ASA is responsible for advertising, such as posters and leaflets, but not websites except banner or pop up advertising on a website.

3. As churches, we need to be responsible about how we advertise, particularly if vulnerable people may be involved. The main question is – can you substantiate any claim you are making? For example, don't say: "Healing offered by Newtown Church"; instead say: "Prayer for healing offered by Newtown Church".

4. Saying: "We believe God can heal" is less problematic than stating as a fact God can heal, because the onus is on the advertiser to substantiate the claim. The Code states that: "Marketers may give a view about any matter...provided it is clear that they are expressing their own opinion, rather than stating a fact." However, in the case of Kings Church Salisbury (KCS), the ASA ruled that: "Although we recognised that KCS believed prayer could [emphasis added] heal and acknowledged that prayer helped some people through difficult circumstances, we considered that it was misleading to suggest that it could shrink brain tumours and overcome infertility."

The ASA have said adding "we believe" won't solve the problem, but they haven't made a ruling on this yet and it would be a significant step for the ASA to prohibit belief claims in the public square. It's quite possible that the attitude of the ASA could be not only in breach of Articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights relating to freedom of belief and speech, but they may also be discriminating on grounds of religion and belief.

5. Use questions. In an adjudication against GOD TV in 2008, their use of a question in relation to a miracle was key to the complaint not being upheld. 

6. Be wary of listing medical conditions. In particular, don't mention cancer – there is specific legislation covering advertisements about cancer that is very strict. 

7. Tell stories. Previous ASA rulings hint that personal testimonies may be misleading, but they are unclear. It's difficult to see what is misleading in saying: "I was ill, I was prayed for and now I am well." Issues may arise if the testimony states definitively: "God healed me," as this can't be substantiated. 

8. Gather and substantiate stories. The ASA require claims made by an advertiser to be substantiated. However, they have also made clear that they will not allow any claim of physical healing. It's not clear what the ASA will do when a claim of physical healing is substantiated. While some will never be convinced it is important to tell stories of God at work and encourage others. 

9. Exercise extreme caution advertising healing to children – don't encourage a child to talk to or receive prayer from a strange/unknown adult.

10. In a number of reported cases the simple fact of suggesting that prayer can heal people has been held to discourage people from seeking medical treatment. This appears to be the ASA's biggest concern. Any flier should include wording such as: "Although we believe that God can and does heal people, we also acknowledge that He does not do so always. We consider it very important, therefore, that you do not stop seeking
medical advice or acting on it without first consulting your doctor."

God is at work and people are being healed. The ASA isn't going to stop that, but we must surely be knowledgeable and wise in our engagement with them. The ASA can make life difficult for local churches, despite their limited legal authority. It is a selfregulatory body and its Code doesn't have
the full force of law. While a breach of the rules is just that, with limited enforcement mechanisms, until the situation is somewhat clearer, local churches may wish to consider how best to communicate with their communities.

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For advertising details please contact Candy O'Donovan - c.odonovan@eauk.org or 020 7520 3846