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FCC ruling against religious broadcasting pushed by Clinton appointees, report claims

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–An effort to “rein in” religious broadcasters by “certain commissioners” of the Federal Communication Commission is behind the FCC’s recent regulations restricting religious content on noncommercial television stations, according to a report in Conservative News Service.

CNS based its report on a high-ranking source at the FCC who spoke on condition on anonymity.

Three of the FCC’s five commissioners are Democratic appointees of President Clinton — chairman William Kennard and commissioners Gloria Tristani and Susan Ness. They comprised the 3-2 majority in adopting the restrictions in December.

Meanwhile, a Texas congressman has become the first Democrat to cosponsor a bill to reverse the FCC regulations.

The Texas Democrat, Ralph Hall, has joined with the bill’s author, Rep. Michael Oxley, R.-Ohio, and several other Republicans, including House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R.-Texas, in endorsing the legislative remedy to the FCC’s action, to be introduced when Congress reconvenes Jan. 24.

The FCC regulations, released Dec. 29, stipulate that noncommercial television stations must devote 50 percent of their regularly scheduled air time to educational programs — and that broadcasts “primarily devoted to religious exhortation, proselytizing or statements of personally-held religious views or beliefs” cannot be included in that 50 percent. The only church service that would count, according to the FCC, is the funeral of a national leader.

According to the unnamed high-ranking FCC official quoted in the Conservative News Service story Jan. 10, the agency “has had [religious broadcasters] in their sights for at least a year. … [C]ertain commissioners have been discussing how best to rein in NCETV [noncommercial educational television] licensees for a while, on separation of church and state grounds.”

The FCC has been “looking for a test case, and they found one in this license swap,” the source told CNS, referring to FCC action on an agreement that allowed PBS station WQED in Pittsburgh, Pa., to swap one of its two stations for religious broadcaster Cornerstone TeleVision’s WPCB in Greensburg, Pa., in anticipation of that station’s sale to Paxson Communications.

CNS also reported that its unnamed FCC source claimed the case was chosen because, as an adjudicatory opinion, the commission did not have to invite public comment on the changes. CNS’ FCC source also claimed that the commission’s staff deliberately delayed the opinion’s release until Dec. 29 in an effort for it to pass unnoticed over the Y2K-preoccupied New Year’s holiday.

A spokesperson for the FCC, contacted by CNS, called the allegations “preposterous” and having “no basis in fact.”

“The detailed language of the WQED decision itself and the separate statements of the commissioners clearly demonstrates a respect for the programming discretion of all broadcasters, specifically including religious broadcasters,” the spokesperson told CNS.

The new FCC regulations have caused widespread concern throughout the nation’s religious community. National Religious Broadcasters sent its 1,200 members a memo outlining the FCC action. “We are preparing a strategy to fight this ruling,” NRB spokesman Karl Stoll told Baptist Press. “NRB considers this a matter of high priority and we are considering various legal options.

“The net result,” Stoll said, “I think, will be less preaching of the gospel, less programming of church services. This decision presents a real danger to freedom of religious expression and raises a lot of constitutional questions.”

Lowell “Bud” Paxson, chairman of Paxson Communications Corp., told Baptist Press the commission’s decision is a blatant violation of free speech.

“This is a very big deal,” Paxson said. “It not only affects television stations, but 400 noncommercial radio stations. It affects every commercial broadcaster who carries a church service.

Oxley, in a prepared statement, said, “In our free society, the FCC has no business suppressing the expression of religious belief.” Oxley is vice chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Trade, and Consumer Protection.

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].

Jerry Falwell, in a Jan. 12 commentary on CNS’ website, conservativenews.org, wrote, “For many years, millions of uninformed Americans have protested against a mythical claim that Madalyn O’Hair was petitioning the Federal Communications Commission to banish religious programming from the public airwaves. Of course, no such petition was ever filed. However, unbelievably, the FCC has recently begun considering a critical and dangerous matter which could result in the removal of all religious broadcasting from the nation’s TV and radio stations.”

Falwell noted that 41 million Americans tune in to religious programming on radio, TV or cable at least once a week, with approximately 2000 radio and TV stations across the country devoting a substantial portion of their program days to religious programming. Religious music and commentary, he continued, comprise the third most popular radio format.

In short, Falwell wrote, millions of people “access religious programming on radio and TV as part of their weekly religious observance.” Additionally, the elderly and other shut-ins who can’t easily attend church services benefit from religious broadcasters, who also provide “a morally uplifting message that is instantaneously available to persons in need or who normally do not participate in organized religion.”

“Importantly, religious broadcasters present as large a variety of messages as there are denominations and religions in this country,” Falwell wrote. “Indeed, the broadcast of religious materials promotes the understanding of all religions, thereby fostering the First Amendment values which are at the heart of our democracy” and the new FCC regulations are “counterproductive in terms of furthering these values.”

“The FCC has no business trying to decide what types of programming are or are not educational or cultural,” Falwell wrote. “The government review of programs which will follow will plainly violate the First Amendment. If ever there was a realm in which the FCC should defer to broadcasters to make their own decisions about what will best serve the public interest, this is it.

“Every American who loves God and freedom should protest this dastardly and intrusive presumption by the FCC,” Falwell wrote.

Todd Starnes contributed to this article.