Healing on the Streets: One Year on

In one weeks time a petition that states ‘I believe that God can heal’ will come to an end. Launched in early 2012 the petition calls on the UK Government to

… ensure that publishing statements of faith is not banned. This petition is put forward following cases where the Advertising Standards Agency [ASA] has banned Christian groups from publishing material with the words ‘God can heal’, for example in Bath.

This is a story quite close to my heart as I was the complainant in the Bath ‘Healing on the Streets’ case that inspired this petition after it made the headlines on February 1st 2012. The group based in the city of Bath were told by the ASA they could not continue to use the leaflets in the form I had complained about. The leaflet read

NEED HEALING? GOD CAN HEAL TODAY! Do you suffer from Back Pain, Arthritis, MS, Addiction … Ulcers, Depression, Allergies, Fibromyalgia, Asthma, Paralysis, Crippling Disease, Phobias, Sleeping disorders or any other sickness? We’d love to pray for your healing right now! We’re Christians from churches in Bath and we pray in the name of Jesus. We believe that God loves you and can heal you from any sickness”

Original Leaflet handed to me in Bath in 2011

I made the complaint because I felt the health claims being made about specific illnesses could be potentially dangerous for those who are desperate and vulnerable, and the ASA agreed with all of my points. A lot of Christians and Christian groups complained that I made the complaint because of some sort of hidden atheist agenda and that this ruling from the ASA was religious persecution. This is, I expect, where the inspiration for the Government petition came from – a misunderstanding of the ASA ruling.

The petition from Andrew Scopes says ‘we call on the Government to ensure that publishing statements of faith is not banned‘ and by asking this question Scopes has taken a distorted interpretation from the ASA adjudication.  The claims ruled against were not statements of faith that were banned, they were claims about the healing of specific illnesses, many of which are terminal and debilitating. The claims had no testable evidence to back them up, and the claims were being made on literature being handed out to strangers on the street, where it would be impossible to know the circumstances of the person being given the leaflet. This is why they were found to be in violation of CAP codes, and not because it was Christians making statements of faith.

The ASA even stated in the initial ruling

‘The ASA acknowledged that HOTS sought to promote their faith and the hope for physical healing by God through the claims in the ad. However, we were concerned that the prominent references to healing and the statement “You have nothing to lose, except your sickness” in combination with the references to medical conditions for which medical supervision should be sought such as arthritis, asthma, MS, addictions, depression and paralysis, could give consumers the expectation that, by receiving prayer from HOTS volunteers, they could be healed of the conditions listed or other sicknesses from which they suffered. We concluded the ad was misleading.

We acknowledged that HOTS volunteers believed that prayer could treat illness and medical conditions, and that therefore the ads did not promote false hope. However we noted we had not seen evidence that people had been healed through the prayer of HOTS volunteers, and concluded that the ad could encourage false hope in those suffering from the named conditions and therefore were irresponsible.’

I’m personally not in the business of stopping people from practicing their chosen faith, and I only made the complaint because of the nature in which the claims in question were being made. The ASA ruling had no hand in the banning published statements of faith, but everything to do with statements of faith being published in a potentially misleading manner.

To even be considered for debate by parliament the petition will need to gain another 96,900+ signatures within the next 8 days which is unlikely. Yet, if Scopes and the 3,000+ people who signed the petition believe what happened in the Bath HOTS case was the banning of statements of faith, the one way the government could ensure similar didn’t happen again would be to grant religious groups exemption from CAP codes and similar regulations, and nobody should be offered a free pass to making health claims if they can’t back their claims up with evidence. Testimony, and claims that ‘god did it’ just aren’t good enough. Surely that isn’t what these people are asking for?

One year after the Healing on the Streets saga – after being hounded by the media, being called ‘Atheist Hayley Stevens’ by the international press, someone complaining to my employers that they shouldn’t employ ‘someone like that’ in a bid to get me in trouble, and dozens and dozens of emails from angry Christians all over the world, the HOTS Bath saga still hasn’t ended…

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2 Comments to “Healing on the Streets: One Year on”

  1. The hounding by these people is disgraceful. And I would that they call themselves victimised Christians. There are so many similarities between alt-med quacks and theists, including the incredible arrogance that because they are deluded about something, they are above criticism.

  2. Alistair Coleman // 6 February, 2013 at 2:26 pm // Reply

    Actually, what you did was very important. In the opening chapter of The God Delusion, Dawkins comments at length on the “free pass” afforded to religion on matters of legal and public discourse, simply because they are the church and normal rules do not apply.

    Your complaint has decisively removed that “free pass” in that one part of public sphere, and religious groups now have to act in the same way as the rest of us in advertising. Sad that some people who profess to be Christians see this as persecution, and sadder still that some see you as enough of a threat to warrant abuse.

    As I’m an atheist, there’s no point in me saying “You’ll get your reward in heaven” because there isn’t one, so just …err… take the rest of the day off :)

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