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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - HBO, the network behind television polygamy drama "Big Love," apologized on Tuesday for any offense to Mormons in a depiction of a sacred ritual but made clear it would air the controversial episode as planned.
The HBO network's program about a non-Mormon polygamous family has stirred up a hornet's nest of complaints over an episode to be broadcast on Sunday showing its version of an endowment ceremony within a Mormon temple.
It is thought to be the first time the ritual, in which participants move to a higher level of understanding of their religion, will be shown on TV.
News of the episode prompted calls and e-mails for cancellation or an HBO boycott by angry members of the Mormon Church, officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).
The Church itself has not officially called for a boycott.
"Big Love," which first aired in 2006, stars Bill Paxton as a member of a fictional breakaway Mormon sect who has three wives and eight children.
HBO said on Tuesday the writers had gone to great lengths "to be respectful and accurate" in the ceremony's portrayal.
"Obviously, it was not our intention to do anything disrespectful to the church, but to those who may be offended, we offer our sincere apology," the network said in a statement. In a separate statement, the creators of the series said they "took great pains to depict the ceremony with the dignity and reverence it is due."
The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, based in Utah, has some 13.5 million members around the world. It officially banned polygamy in 1890, sixty years after it was founded, but the practice continues in some breakaway sects.
The furor reflected the dilemma faced by Mormons as the growing Church takes its place in mainstream society.
"This is a very sacred event in the lives of LDS church members. To have it splashed all over television for entertainment purposes (and ultimately for monetary gain) is just offensive," wrote a poster called "nanberg" on HBO's official "Big Love" message board on Tuesday.
The Church refrained from calling for a boycott of HBO, or sister companies owned by corporate parent Time Warner Inc, such as Internet service provider AOL. But the Church did recognize that individual members might do so.
"Certainly Church members are offended when their most sacred practices are misrepresented or presented without context or understanding," LDS said in a statement on Monday.
"Individual Latter-day Saints have the right to take such actions if they choose. The Church ... as an institution does not call for boycotts. Such a step would simply generate the kind of controversy that the media loves and in the end would increase audiences for the series," it added.
The LDS statement said that, despite assurances three years ago from HBO and the creators of "Big Love" that the show was not about Mormons, Mormon themes and increasingly unsympathetic characters were being woven into the show.
The Church was thrust into the spotlight last year for supporting a ban on gay marriage in California and during the removal of more than 400 children from a Texas polygamist ranch in response to an abuse complaint.
The LDS statement urged followers to behave with dignity, saying there was no evidence that extreme misrepresentations "have any long-term negative effect on the Church."
Editing by Eric Walsh