Internet

Mormon church bans missionary email

Separately, the Catholic Church tussles with a controversial design company running erotic ads on a papal visit web site.

Religious groups often find themselves at odds with the Internet, and this week both the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and Catholic churches are battling its modernizing influence.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, known more colloquially as the Mormon church, recently implemented a new policy banning its missionaries from using electronic communications such as email and faxes to stay in touch with friends and family.

Separately, Missouri's Archdiocese of St. Louis asked for and received a temporary injunction ordering the removal of a site that features information about Pope John Paul II's upcoming visit to the city, above banner ads containing erotic imagery.

The new Latter-day Saints policy broadens already stringent guidelines on how and how often the missionaries, who commit to two years of service, can reach out to loved ones. Missionaries are allowed to phone only home twice a year, on Christmas and Mother's Day, and are not permitted to write letters more than once a week. Exceptions are made for missionaries in areas where postal service is spotty.

The idea, said church spokesman Dan Rascon, is to keep the missionaries from losing sight of their calling.

"Because of the immediacy of email, where you can chat back and forth, and because of its quick access, it could get the missionaries off focus," he said. "Email can turn into a constant thing, and being in constant contact makes you homesick, and you can start to lose concentration."

The church also is concerned about missionaries burdening members or church offices, Rascon added, because they are not allowed to have computers of their own and would need to borrow equipment or get to a library in order to access email.

The Latter-day Saints church is hardly technophobic, he maintained, pointing to its Web site as an example of how it has embraced the Internet. "We're not living in the Stone Age, but when it comes to missionary work, the less distractions the better," he said. "

The church simply felt it needed to take a formal position on the excessive use by some missionaries of instant communication, Rascon said. "I believe that the missionaries aren't bothered by this policy. They realize how important it is to be focused."

But some family members of missionaries are taken aback by the absolutist nature of the new policy.

"I am disappointed," said one member of the Latter-day Saints church, noting that email is the only way she stays in touch with her mother, who is on a humanitarian mission in Southeast Asia.

"It's important that we are able to keep in touch with our families, and technology has been a very easy way to do that," she said. "If there's a problem with overuse, it seems that could be solved in other ways." Rascon said the new policy is not intended to isolate missionaries, of whom there are some 57,000 worldwide, from their families.

"We are in no way trying to pull families apart by this," he said. "We believe that when a missionary's life turns to Christ, and when they write home about their wonderful experiences, families at home can enjoy and share that experience, and it actually draws them closer together."

The pope in St. Louis
The Catholic Church's Internet dilemma has to do less with dogma than with trademark infringement law.

Claiming the Internet Entertainment Group is trying to capitalize on the pope's upcoming visit to attract traffic, the St. Louis archdiocese won a temporary order calling for the controversial adult-site design firm to pull down the site. In a Wednesday hearing, the archdiocese will ask the federal district judge presiding over the case to make the injunction permanent.

Despite the site's disclaimer stating that it is not affiliated in any way with the Roman Catholic Church or the Archdiocese of St. Louis, as well as an entry page warning that some of the material contained within is controversial and inappropriate for minors, some Catholics took offense and contacted the Archdiocese to voice their concerns. Apparently it had been live for only a few days before the temporary injunction was issued.

Archdiocese spokesman Steve Mamanella said many people searching the Web for information about the pope's January 26-27 visit inadvertently accessed IEG's site, and thought that the Archdiocese's official papal visit site had been hacked, or that the church wasn't aware of ads soliciting pornography that appeared at the bottom of the page.

"Many people simply typed the words 'papal visit' into their search engines, and at first glance the [IEG] site seemed legitimate," he said. "IEG is preying on people, confusing them in order to direct traffic to their site."

But Seth Warshavsky, president of IEG, argued that there is no way visitors to IEG's papal visit site could have mistaken it for the official site, and maintained that IEG has as much a right to cover the pope's trip as anyone else.

"This is a major event, and we try to cover big events from a different perspective--from the perspective of sex. The Catholic Church has some extreme positions on sexuality, and has been involved in some sexual controversy, so it's in our interest to cover it.

"We probably covered the papal visit more thoroughly than anyone," he added. "The site was 99 percent information about the Pope's visit, and 10 percent about sex and the Catholic church. There was no nudity at all."

Warshavsky said he was "shocked" when he was contacted by the Archdiocese's lawyers about the injunction request, arguing that the Archdiocese's claims of trademark infringement are unfounded.

"We did use the term 'papal visit,' but that's just an expression. Their position is a violation of the First Amendment, and we're really confident that we'll win on Wednesday if we get a fair hearing," he said, noting that St. Louis is a 99 percent Catholic community.

The Archdiocese, for its part, said IEG's motivation for publishing the site had little to do with free speech and more to do with generating buzz.

"Their motivation is to make money and peddle porn," Mamanella said. "They probably believe that they could get a great deal of attention by doing something as silly and as sad as this."

Indeed, IEG has been at the center of controversy many times before.

The company is perhaps best known for making millions of dollars from exclusive rights to distribute online a sexually explicit home video of former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson Lee and her rocker husband, Tommy Lee. The Lees initially had sued IEG to block sales of the video, but then cut a undisclosed deal allowing the company to continue distributing it.

Later, the Lees later went back to court to debate the terms of that agreement, until federal judge Dean Pregerson ruled that the Lees can no longer take up the IEG matter in his court.

More recently, IEG was sued by talk-radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who filed a lawsuit aimed at permanently blocking publication on IEG's site of 12 nude photos of herself that had been taken 20 years earlier. Dr. Laura, as she is known to her fans, ultimately dropped the suit.

"It's a catch-22 situation for us, because I'm sure that a sleazy firm like IEG would want to get the publicity that a court action generates, so we're doing exactly what they want us to do," the Archdiocese's Mamanella said. "But on the other hand, we were getting a number of calls, and felt that we had to address this in court."

Warshavsky maintained that the latest courtroom battle it faces is not a publicity stunt.

"We thought the site would be controversial, and we've never shied away from controversy, but this is one of the biggest events of the year, and as a publisher and content provider we wanted to cover it," he said.

"It is just absurd for a court to be able to issue an injunction, and for the Catholic church to ask them to do that and suppress our free speech, even if they do find it objectionable to have an adult site sponsor information about the pope's visit."

The Archdiocese, for its part, said confusion and deception were more at issue than the First Amendment.

"Our concern is directly related to the good, honest, wholesome people who are going to this site," Mamanella said. "We support free speech, though it's no surprise that the Catholic Church isn't a supporter of pornography."