Attendees arriving in Cleveland for the Republican National Convention next week will be greeted by a giant billboard with President Ronald Reagan’s image on it, quoting him saying, “We establish no religion in this country.” The sign was purchased by an atheist group called the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
What convention attendees won’t see is an even larger sign with a pro-religion message that would have advertised the DVD release of God’s Not Dead 2. That’s because, after two months of back-and-forth with the movie’s distributor, the billboard company, Orange Barrel Media, may have deemed the Christian-sounding messaging needlessly provocative.
The sign, which would have measured 32 feet by 60 feet, would have draped down one side of a large building in downtown Cleveland and was to feature a picture of Melissa Joan Hart, who plays a teacher in trouble for invoking scripture in the classroom. Alongside the image of the actress was the text: “I’d rather stand with God and be judged by the world than stand with the world and be judged by God.”
Orange Barrel told Pure Flix, the distributor, it didn’t like the “judged by God” message, calling it “too political” and “way too incendiary,” according to emails obtained by The Hollywood Reporter. On another occasion, insiders said the billboard company complained that even the title of the film was considered problematic.
Early on, Orange Barrel cited Republican National Committee rules barring “scandalous” signage, though Pure Flix argued that the RNC would have no problem with their message, especially since former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee is in the movie. In fact, the GOP has partnered with Pure Flix for a worship service the night prior to the start of the convention, followed by a screening of the movie (with food provided by Chick-fil-A).
Orange Barrel next warned that the city of Cleveland might have a problem with the message. The city did have an issue with the size and placement of the sign and advised the sign company of certain steps it would need to go through to get approval, but by then, the damage was done, says Steve Fedyski, the CEO of Pure Flix, which agreed two months ago to pay Orange Barrel $64,100 for its sign.
“I’m perplexed. They dragged us along for weeks. Now, right up against the convention date, they say we aren’t approved, and they give us no logical rationale,” Fedyski said. “My speculation is that someone, somewhere didn’t want our message out. It’s hard to understand, considering we’ve used the same marketing on CNN and other national networks.”
The Cleveland Host Committee is, in fact, working with the RNC to guarantee that anti-Republican groups don’t spoil the convention venue with provocative signage (the Democratic National Convention is working in concert with Philadelphia for similar assurances for their convention). It’s unclear, though — even from the multiple emails sent to Pure Flix — who actually deemed the God’s Not Dead 2 sign inappropriate. A spokesman for the mayor of Cleveland said the city had no objections to the content of the sign.
One email from Orange Barrel to Pure Flix reads: “This would not be approved. Way too incendiary.”
Orange Barrel CEO Pete Scantland told THR that there was “no bias” intended, and said his company never actually obtained permission from the city to put any sign on the building in question, which Fedyski finds odd.
“They picked the building and the size, and advertised that it was available,” he said. “They gave us a budget and deadlines and we met all of it, then they put us on hold. We missed a primary promotional opportunity.”
But the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s pro-atheism message (which appears on a Clear Channel billboard) appears to have gone unchallenged.
“It’s near the airport, right after the ‘Welcome to Cleveland’ sign,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, a spokesperson for the group. “The idea was that people flying in to the convention couldn’t miss it.”
Gaylor said her group has also secured more than 30 signs promoting atheism at the Democratic National Convention, which runs July 25-28.
Watch the trailer for God’s Not Dead 2 below. The DVD comes out Aug. 16 from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.