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HBO, Mormons square off over airing of sacred rite

SALT LAKE CITY -- HBO on Tuesday defended its plans todepict a sacred Mormon temple ceremony in an upcoming episode of" Big Love."

The drama about a Utah polygamous family will show an endowmentceremony Sunday.

HBO said it did not intend to be disrespectful of The Church ofJesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and apologized.

"Obviously, it was not our intention to do anythingdisrespectful to the church, but to those who may be offended, weoffer our sincere apology," the premium cable channel said in astatement issued Tuesday.

But the ceremony is an important part of the "Big Love" storyline, HBO said.

In the scene, actress Jeanne Tripplehorn's character, Barb, goesthrough the endowment ceremony as she faces losing her membershipin the Mormon church.

On Monday, Mormon church leaders criticized HBO for its decisionto include the ceremony and said airing the material shows theinsensitivity of the network's writers, producers and executives.

"Certainly church members are offended when their most sacredpractices are misrepresented or presented without context orunderstanding," the church statement said.

Only church members in good standing can enter temples toperform or witness sacred ceremonies. The ceremonies are centeredon religious teachings and re-enactments of Bible stories to helpMormons prepare an eternal place for themselves -- and others byproxy -- in heaven.

Members take a vow not to discuss the rituals outside templewalls, although details of the ceremonies are widely available onthe Internet.

The dramatization of the ceremony was vetted for accuracy by anadviser familiar with temple ceremonies who was on set duringfilming, said series creators and executives producers Mark V.Olsen and Will Scheffer.

"In approaching the dramatization of the endowment ceremony, weknew we had a responsibility to be completely accurate and to showthe ceremony in the proper context and with respect," Olsen andScheffer said in a separate statement issued through HBO. "Wetherefore took great pains to depict the ceremony with the dignityand reverence it is due."

The church declined an interview request by The Associated Presson Tuesday.

News of the episode has sparked an online campaign by individualLatter-day Saints, who are calling for a boycott of "Big Love"and cancellation of subscriptions to HBO, AOL and other Time WarnerInc.-owned entities.

The church itself has not called for a boycott and said in itsstatement that doing so would just fuel controversy and interest inthe program.

Church leaders also said members of the rapidly growing faithshould not feel defensive about HBO's characterization of Mormons.

"There is no evidence that extreme misrepresentations in themedia that appeal only to a narrow audience have any long termnegative effect on the church," they said in the statement.

"Big Love" is in its third season on HBO and a fourth is inthe works. The program tells the story of Bill Hendrickson, afundamentalist (played by Bill Paxton) who runs a chain of hardwarestores and lives with three wives (Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny andGinnifer Goodwin) in a Salt Lake City suburb.

Like Utah's real-life fundamentalists, the Hendricksons' beliefsare tied to the early teachings of Mormon church founder JosephSmith, who said polygamy was an essential doctrine for exaltationin the afterlife. The church ultimately abandoned the practice in1890 as a condition of Utah's statehood.

When "Big Love" first aired, negotiations between the churchand HBO resulted in a one-time disclaimer included in the show'scredits that distinguished the modern church's position on polygamyfrom the beliefs of the fictional characters in the series.

This season, however, the show's polygamy-focused stories haveincluded more mainstream Mormon references. The program referencesevents from Mormon history and the Hendricksons take a familyvacation to upstate New York for the Hill Cumorah Pageant, areenactment of stories from the Book of Mormon.

"Despite earlier assurances from HBO, it once again blurs thedistinction between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saintsand the show's fictional non-Mormon characters and theirpractices," the church statement said.

HBO contends that throughout its three-year run writers andproducers of "Big Love" have continued to make a clear"distinction between the LDS church and those extreme fringegroups who practice polygamy."

Being featured in a popular HBO series is in many ways a plusfor the 178-year-old church, said Daniel Stout, a professor ofjournalism and media studies at the University of Nevada, LasVegas.

"It says the Mormon church has come of age, it's a majorAmerican religion," said Stout, who studies and writes about theintersection of religion and popular culture.

But the attention may also raise fears among church leaders thatMormons will become a target for ridicule or persecution becausethe details of the sacred temple ceremony will seem strange tonon-Mormons. However, studies have shown that predictions about theeffects of media depictions aren't always accurate, Stout said.

"There are many themes and issues dealt with by 'Big Love,"'he said. "It's a story of family, of relationships and thedynamics of polygamy. It's entertainment. I'm not sure people willbe watching it like a documentary."


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