Isaac Hayes, the soul singer who has played South Park's school chef since the series began nine years ago, has decided to call it quits, saying he can no longer put up with the show's "intolerance and bigotry toward religious beliefs".
That, in turn, has triggered an entertainingly acrimonious spat between Hayes and the show's creators, who have found the accusation little short of hilarious, given the fact that the show has been deeply irreverent towards organised religion from the start.
They believe the true cause of Hayes' annoyance is a notorious episode aired in the United States last November - and yanked from the air in Britain for legal reasons - which targeted Scientology and suggested, in characteristically unsubtle fashion, that the religion was a bogus pile of sci-fi claptrap designed to hoodwink people into forking over their money.
"In 10 years and over 150 episodes of South Park, Isaac never had a problem with the show making fun of Christians, Muslims, Mormons or Jews," the South Park co-creator Matt Stone said in a statement. "He got a sudden case of religious sensitivity when it was his religion featured on the show." Stone added, however: "Of course we will release Isaac from his contract, and we wish him well."
In his own statement, Hayes made no specific mention of Scientology or of the Scientology episode, in which one of the South Park fourth-graders is mistaken for the second coming of L Ron Hubbard, the religion's founder, and proceeds to be worshipped by the likes of Cruise, John Travolta and other celebrities until he unwittingly triggers a crisis of faith.
"There is a place in this world for satire, but there is a time when satire ends and intolerance and bigotry towards religious beliefs of others begins," Hayes said. "Religious beliefs are sacred to people, and at all times should be respected and honoured. As a civil rights activist of the past 40 years, I cannot support a show that disrespects those beliefs and practices." Hayes likened the show's attitude to religion to the notorious Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed, saying the writers had shown "growing insensitivity".
Stone and his co-creator Trey Parker, both University of Colorado graduates who never quite shed their student sense of humour, are right to assert there is nothing new about disrespect for religion on their show. South Park grew out of two short films they made lampooning Christianity, including one in which Jesus and Santa Claus tussle in a martial-arts duel over the true meaning of Christmas.
Hayes, who sang the theme from Shaft and other soul classics of the 1970s, was originally hired on a one-off basis. But the character of Chef, a suave ladies' man with a weakness for talking lewdly about sex - in one episode he sings a song called "Salty Chocolate Balls" - proved so popular that he became a regular.
Among other activities, Hayes has become involved in a Scientology-related initiative to help impoverished inner-city schools. But in last November's episode, entitled "Trapped in the Closet", Parker and Stone depicted entertainment celebrities involved in the religion as gullible and psychologically unstable.
Their animated version of Tom Cruise - perhaps the most prominent Scientologist in the world -- travels to South Park to meet Stan, believing him to be the new Hubbard, then locks himself in a closet after Stan tells him he doesn't think much of him as an actor. The second half of the episode is replete with jokes that cannot be repeated here for the same reason that the show was pulled from BSkyB's schedule.
Britain's libel laws, tougher than those in the United States, have been used by Mr Cruise in the past to scare off would-be gossip-mongers.
Although Mr Cruise did not threaten legal action in this case, his reputation for litigiousness was enough for the broadcaster to exercise caution.