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FCC reverses decision on religious broadcasting

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–The Federal Communication Commission — in the face of massive public outcry — has reversed a portion of a Dec. 29 ruling on what constitutes permissible programming under a noncommercial educational television broadcasting license.

“The FCC reversal on this critical First Amendment issue on Friday was the result of God’s providential grace and the Christian community standing united for religious freedom,” said Robert E. Reccord, president of the North American Mission Board, of the 4-1 vote by FCC commissioners.

“We rejoice with and are thankful for all those with whom we stood in this struggle against religious discrimination,” Reccord said.

Reccord also thanked “the two FCC commissioners who opposed the original ruling and now have the privilege of voting with the majority for a reversal.”

The decision, said Brant Gustavson, president of the National Religious Broadcasters organization, “is a beautiful demonstration of democracy in action. We are grateful for the NRB members who spread the news and motivated citizens to call their representatives, senators and the commissioners expressing their outrage over this unconstitutional decision.”

The North American Mission Board’s FamilyNet subsidiary filed a “Petition for Reconsideration” less than two hours before the announcement of the reversal on Jan. 28. Others who joined in filing the petition included Channel 38 Christian Television, a FamilyNet affiliate in El Paso, Texas, and several church broadcast ministries — including those of two former SBC presidents, pastors Adrian Rogers and Ed Young, and two other leading pastors, James Merritt and Ronnie Floyd.

Randy Singer, NAMB’s executive vice president, called the reversal a “victory for the little guys — the noncommercial stations just trying to broadcast God’s Word through television ministries reaching their communities.

“While this threat to religious liberty has now passed, it does not mean we can let down our guard,” said Singer, a trial attorney who practiced communications law before coming to NAMB. “This entire incident should serve to remind us again that ‘the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.'”

The contested — and reversed — portion of the Dec. 29 ruling introduced a qualification that half of the programming of noncommercial educational licensees must “primarily serve an educational, instructional or cultural purpose” in the station’s community.

The required 50 percent could include some forms of “teaching of matters related to religion” such as “studying religious texts form a historical or literary perspective,” according to the FCC ruling. However, it would exclude “programming primarily devoted to religious exhortation, proselytizing, or statements of personally-held religious views.” Church services “generally will not qualify” under the standard, the original ruling stated.

In the reversal, the FCC said that while attempting to “clarify what constitutes non-commercial educational programming, we offered additional guidance broadly, and attempted to apply that guidance to specific cases involving religious programming. Regrettably, it has become clear that our actions have created less certainty rather than more, contrary to our intent.

“In hindsight, we see the difficulty of minting clear definitional parameters for ‘educational, instructional or cultural’ programming, particularly without the benefit of broad comment. Therefore, we vacate our additional guidance. We will defer to the editorial judgment of the licensee unless such judgment is arbitrary or unreasonable.”

The original case involved Cornerstone Television, an independently owned FamilyNet affiliate operating under a commercial license in suburban, Pittsburgh, Pa. Cornerstone sought to acquire a non-commercial educational license in an exchange with a public television broadcaster in Pittsburgh which held two such licenses. The commercial license, in turn, then would have been sold to a subsidiary of Paxson Communications Corp.

A Cornerstone spokesman told Baptist Press Jan. 31 that it will stand by an earlier decision to abandon the effort in the face of the FCC’s ruling.

“We feel that when the FCC released the additional guidance on Dec. 29 that it revealed a lot about the disposition of the commissioners toward religious broadcasters on noncommercial channels. And because of that, we feel like the rules have now changed,” said Mark Dreistadt, vice president of administration and finance for Cornerstone.

“We are thankful that the wording was rescinded, however we believe that just because the wording has been rescinded does not mean that their disposition has changed,” Dreistadt said.

Specifically, he said Cornerstone anticipated repeated challenges to future programming from The Alliance for Progressive Action, a group in Pittsburgh that opposed the license transfer.

“We know that they would be monitoring our programming and filing repetitive complaints on whatever grounds they could,” Cornerstone’s Dreistadt said. “We just don’t feel like we want to be subject to that kind of pressure and scrutiny unless there is a decision once and for all that says religious broadcasting is acceptable for cultural and educational programming.”

Along with the majority opinion on the Jan. 28 reversal, individual FCC commissioners also offered their opinions on the reversal of the ruling. One concurred and one dissented, but both argued that the true reason for the reversal was not the one cited by the majority.

“It was not for lack of clarity that these parties objected to the decision but for infringement of freedom of speech and freedom of religion — and rightly so,” commissioner Harold W. Furchtgott-Roth, who dissented with the original ruling, said in a prepared statement.

“The many and grave problems occasioned by direct review of religious programming for educational purpose were plainly perceptible when the commission first set forth its ‘additional guidance.’ That is why I voted against it then, and why I vote to remove it from our books now,” Furchtgott-Roth said.

As a result of the new decision, he said, “there should be no doubt that the Mass Media Bureau [of the FCC] is unauthorized to engage in any formal or informal practice of directly reviewing the substance of stations’ programming or imposing a quantification requirement on educational programming.” Instead, he said, “the Bureau’s task is simply to assess whether the broadcaster’s judgment that his station will be used chiefly to serve educational needs of the relevant community is arbitrary or unreasonable.”

Commissioner Gloria Tristani, however, called it a “sad and shameful day for the FCC” in her dissenting statement, saying the commission “capitulated to an organized campaign of distortion and demagoguery.”

“The excuse for vacating the additional guidance — that our actions ‘have created less certainty rather than more’ — would be laughable were the stakes not so high. The problem was not a lack of clarity, but that we were too clear,” Tristani said. “We actually tried to give meaning to our rule. What the majority really means is that they prefer a murky and unenforceable rule to a clear and enforceable one.”

Singer said that Tristani, the only commissioner to vote against the reversal, “still misses the point.”

“This outcry was not about the FCC, it was about religious freedom to proclaim the gospel,” Singer said. “And Friday was a happy and proud day for those committed to that freedom.”

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  • James Dotson