NEW YORK—The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Liberties ratcheted up the pressure on Harvey and Bob Weinstein, owners of the soon-to-be released anti-Catholic film, Dogma, by challenging first lady Hillary Clinton and Disney Chairman Michael Eisner to sever their associations with the Academy Award-winning distributors.

The controversy began when the Weinsteins' distribution company, Miramax, acquired the rights last year to Dogma, written and directed by critically acclaimed Kevin Smith (Clerks and Chasing Amy).

The film ridicules Catholic beliefs about the Virgin Mary, indulgences, the Twelve Apostles, and God himself, played by pop singer Alanis Morrisette, whose concert repertoire is peppered with profanity and her own critical view of the Church.

After pressure from the Catholic League, Disney, which owns Miramax, persuaded the distributor not to release the film. But the Weinsteins decided to find another distribution outlet or release it themselves personally.

This wasn't good enough for the Catholic League. On June 22 league president William Donohue issued a challenge to the first lady who has close ties to the Weinsteins. The New York-based distributors have given $20,000 to the president's Legal Expense Trust and are putting Hillary Clinton on the cover of Talk, their new magazine which is hitting the newsstands this summer. She's considering running for the U.S. Senate from New York in 2000.

“The Catholic League calls on her to break her association with the Weinsteins by refusing to accept another dime from them,” Donohue declared. “In 1997, Hillary slammed the movie, My Best Friend's Wedding, simply because Julia Roberts smoked too much. Can she now summon the courage to slam Dogma? Catholics — and this is especially true of New York Catholics — need to know whether Hillary Clinton is as exercised about Catholic bashing as she is about smoking.”

Counterproductive?

Brent Bozell, chairman of Media Research Council, applauds the Catholic League's action.

“It shows the hypocrisy of Hillary and Bill Clinton claiming to talk about moral values and criticizing Hollywood while coddling people like the Weinsteins and taking money from them,” he told the Register.

But some in the entertainment industry who support the Catholic League's goals question the wisdom of this new tactic. “Guilt by association and calls for repudiation don't help us in promoting a rational dialogue about what we do in Hollywood,” veteran writer-director Lionel Chetwynd (Hanoi Hilton) told the Register.

Chetwynd, who often supports such causes, describes himself as “one of the growing number of people out here who have a daily concern about the images Hollywood sends out and their impact on fellow citizens.” He says, “The Catholic League should know better.”

Both the Weinsteins and Hillary Clinton refused to comment to the Register.

Undaunted, the Catholic League decided to apply a different kind of pressure. In a June 23 New York Times advertisement, it called on Disney to end its corporate relationship with Miramax. “If Disney wants to recapture its family friendly image, there is no better way to do this than by severing all ties with the Weinsteins,” says the ad. “Catholics, and people of all religions, are sick and tired of these kinds or assaults. To that end, the Catholic League will commence a petition drive, sending the results directly to Michael Eisner.”

Industry insiders sympathetic to the Catholic League's anger about Dogma wonder how effective a petition drive will be. “The filmmaker clearly selected the subject to shock, offend, titillate and generate publicity,” experienced writer-producer Rob Long (NBC-TV's Cheers!) told the Register. “But it's rare this kind of action works.”

“It's the appropriate thing to do,” said Bozell. “But I don't hold much hope for it.”

Donohue said he believes the Catholic League has to keep pushing. “If you don't put the heat on, you get nowhere,” he contended.

As proof, he cited an earlier campaign against Miramax and Disney which got results. In 1995 Miramax released Priest, a British-made film about a homosexual priest. The Catholic League protested by organizing a boycott of other Disney products. “Priest bombed,” says Donohue. “Without applying similar pressure we wouldn't have gotten Disney to get Miramax to drop Dogma.”

Bozell thinks the entertainment conglomerate has other divisions with similar problems. “What Disney did in dropping Dogma was damage control. If they drop the Weinsteins completely, next they'll have to sever themselves from ABC,” he adds, alluding to the network's questionable programming in series like Nothing Sacred, which dealt with an urban priest's problems in a highly controversial manner.

Neither Disney nor Miramax would comment to the Register about the petition drive or Dogma.

Dogma, starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, is about a pair of angels trying to get back into heaven by circumventing Church rules. One of them hangs out at abortion clinics because he thinks it's a good place to meet women. He has a relationship with a female Catholic clinic worker whom the film claims is descended from Jesus.

The movie also suggests that Mary was no virgin. God is portrayed by female alternative rock star Alanis Morrisette, and a foul-mouthed 13th apostle is introduced. “The film is punctuated by four-letter words and toilet humor,” says London's Daily Telegraph.

Dogma also shows a nun leaving her vocation to pursue the pleasures of the flesh, and a man thumbing a pornographic magazine in church.

The June 28 issue of Time reports that director Smith is considering re-editing certain scenes in response to the outcry after the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo. The sequences include one in which the pair of angels bullet-spray a board meeting of a large corporation and another in which they kill a group of people outside a church.

“Smith is rethinking the violence. But he's not willing to rethink the anti-Catholic material,” said Donohue, who has read the script. “It obviously isn't of great interest to him.

John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.