News Articles

Broadcaster turns down FCC license; NRB to Congress: reverse FCC ruling

WASHINGTON (BP)–In reaction to religious restrictions imposed by the Federal Communications Commission, the broadcasting company at issue in the case has announced it will refuse a noncommercial educational television license that had been granted by the FCC.

Meanwhile, the National Religious Broadcasters organization, in a letter to all members of Congress, has asked their help in reversing the FCC restrictions, which the NRB described as an unconstitutional suppression of religious speech.

In the NRB letter, dated Jan. 13, NRB President Brandt Gustavson told members of Congress: “If allowed to stand, this new ruling will likely force religious television stations across the country to modify their programming to satisfy the FCC’s new quota and restrictive definition.”

The FCC regulations, released Dec. 29, were approved in a 3-2 vote among FCC commissioners, the voting majority being appointees of President Clinton. According to the FCC, noncommercial television stations must devote 50 percent of their regularly scheduled air time to educational programs -excluding broadcasts “primarily devoted to religious exhortation, proselytizing or statements of personally-held religious views or beliefs” in that 50 percent. The only church service that would count, according to the FCC, is the funeral of a national leader.

NRB’s Gustavson told members of Congress in his letter that “the FCC’s discriminatory bias against religious educational and cultural expression is fundamentally at odds with this country’s founding principles. In particular, we believe that it represents a clear violation of the freedom of religious expression protected by the First Amendment.

“If you share our concerns over this matter, we encourage you to write the FCC Commissioners and urge them to immediately repeal this most unfortunate and ill-advised policy.”

In announcing it will refuse the FCC license, religious broadcaster Cornerstone Television’s president, Oleen Eagle, stated the new regulations “seriously jeopardized our ability to carry out our mission of broadcasting Christian educational programming.”

Eagle said in a statement, “Since our mission requires us to broadcast programming that involves Christian exhortation, evangelizing, statements of personally-held religious views and beliefs and church services, we could be threatened with loss of our primary means of carrying out our mission.”

The FCC action focused on an agreement that allowed PBS station WQED in Pittsburgh, Pa., to swap one of its two stations for Cornerstone TeleVision’s WPCB in Greensburg, Pa., in anticipation of that station’s sale to Paxson Communications.

“The financial benefits of the transaction with WQED would have been significant,” Eagle said, “but there is no benefit that would justify the sacrifice of religious freedom required by the new FCC standards.”

Calling the guidelines “horrendous” and “vague and overbroad,” Eagle said that they “clearly violate the First Amendment to the United States Constitution by singling out religious programming for special scrutiny, regulating the content of religious speech and suppressing religious expression by prior restraint…. We regret that this simple license exchange transaction has become so politicized in Washington that it now has nationwide ramifications.”

Rep. Michael Oxley, R.-Ohio, and several other Republicans, including House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R.-Texas, and at least one Democrat have stated they will introduce a legislative remedy to the FCC’s action when Congress reconvenes Jan. 24. Oxley is vice chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Trade, and Consumer Protection.

FCC Chairman William Kennard, one of the three who voted for the religious restrictions, responded Jan. 12 in a letter to concerns about the regulations that had been noted by Oxley in an earlier letter.

“The NCE [noncommercial-educational] standards apply only when NCE certification is requested, and do not apply to most religious broadcasters,” Kennard wrote. “The Commission thus did not single out religious broadcasters, but rather clarified standards applicable to all NCE broadcasters,” Kennard continued.

“The Commission’s decision in this case therefore does not establish new rules, but simply clarifies long-standing FCC policy applicable to any broadcaster seeking to use an NCE-reserved channel,” Kennard wrote.

In response to Kennard’s letter, NRB spokesman Karl Stoll said, “So what if most religious broadcasters operate on commercial channels? Does that mean it’s acceptable to restrict religious speech when it only affects a small number? Any thinking person can see it is very obvious in the decision that the FCC established new rules and did indeed single out religious programming for new standards. To say otherwise is dishonest.”

According to the NRB, there are at least 15 religious TV stations currently licensed as noncommercial-educational. The 1,200-member organization will hold its 57th Annual Convention and Exposition in Anaheim, Calif., Feb. 5-8.

In addition to Kennard, FCC Commissioners Gloria Tristani and Susan Ness voted for the restrictions.

Constituents can contact their U.S. representatives and senators by calling the U.S. Capitol at (202) 224-3121 or by getting contact information via the Internet at www.house.gov and www.senate.gov.

The FCC’s telephone number at its consumer center is 1-888-225-5322; the agency’s address is 445 12th St. S.W., Washington, DC 20554; and the e-mail address of FCC chairman Kennard is [email protected].