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House passes bill to prevent FCC from restricting religious speech

WASHINGTON (BP)–A bill to prohibit the Federal Communications Commission from restricting religious speech on noncommercial educational channels passed the House of Representatives by a 264-159 vote June 20.

Rep. Chip Pickering, R.-Miss., sponsor of the Noncommercial Broadcasting Freedom of Expression Act, called the HR 4201 vote a victory for religious freedom.

The bill makes sure that “the FCC will never again try to regulate religious speech,” Pickering said in referencing the FCC’s controversial Cornerstone/WQED decision last December restricting religious speech on noncommercial educational TV stations.

Strong public outcry against the FCC’s Dec. 29 restrictions prompted the agency to rescind its action Jan. 28.

The FCC’s ill-fated restrictions required TV broadcasters with noncommercial educational licenses to devote at least half their programming hours to topics that serve the “educational, instructional or cultural needs of the community.” The FCC said such programming could not be “primarily devoted to religious exhortation, proselytizing, or statements of personally-held religious views and beliefs.” Church services “generally will not qualify” under the standard, the ruling stated.

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.

The House bill, which passed largely along party lines, will require the FCC to hold public hearings before changing the licensing rules for noncommercial religious broadcasters, the Internet news site CNSNews.com noted.

Both Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R. Texas, and Sen. Sam Brownback, R.Kan., have introduced similar bills in the Senate, though a vote has not been scheduled on either.

“Government agencies should never attempt to determine what is acceptable or unacceptable religious speech because religious freedom and freedom of speech are both protected by the Constitution,” Pickering said after the House vote.

Brandt Gustavson, president of the National Religious Broadcasters, said after the vote, “[W]e’re one step closer to being sure that the government, in this case the FCC, will not be permitted to chip away at our basic liberty of religious expression.” NRB is a 1,250-member association of Christian broadcasters.

In a memo urging NRB members to support the legislation, Gustavson had noted, “In Washington, bad ideas never seem to go away; they are often resurrected a piece at a time. We must not allow this to happen with the Cornerstone decision. We fear that the underlying philosophy that allowed such a decision in the first place is still alive at the commission.”

House Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts was quoted by CNSNews.com as saying, “There is a war being waged right now on prayer and religion by liberals who are taking every opportunity to make America as God-less as possible. This is not what our founding fathers envisioned when our rights were granted.”

One opponent of the bill, John Dingell, D.-Mich., derided the measure as “a raid on the educational broadcasting system, the educational broadcasting networks and upon public broadcasting. I would point out that if this legislation is passed you are going to find any imaginable form of religious crank or crackpot to come forward to claim priority in terms of religious broadcasting licenses. Reverend Koresh, Jim Jones, any one of many, can come in and then force your government, your agency, the FCC and this Congress to address who is entitled to a broadcasting license.”

But Rep. Michael G. Oxley, R.-Ohio, said in a Washington Times interview that Democrats were offering “a bogus argument.” He said the bill forbids a station from making “arbitrary or unreasonable” determinations about what type of programming serves its community. Oxley said the legislation is needed because the FCC “never acknowledged their procedural, legal or constitutional errors.”

The House defeated, by a 250-174 vote, an amendment offered by Rep. Edward Markey, D.-Mass., that would have required noncommercial educational licensees to provide only educational programming. The National Religious Broadcasters and other religious groups opposed the Markey amendment because it allowed the FCC to determine the definition of “educational.”

Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin, R.-La., head of the House Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications, told The Times that religious broadcasters now have 800 to 1,000 noncommercial radio licenses and soon will have 23 television licenses. “The FCC tried to take them away, in effect,” Tauzin said. “This bill prevents that.” Most religious broadcasters, however, operate with commercial licenses.

Donald Wildmon, founder of the American Family Association, said the FCC’s “hostility toward religious broadcasters” is “well-documented.”

“If this [bill] is not passed [in the Senate], they will put as many restrictions on Christian broadcasting as they as they can possibly get away with,” Wildmon predicted.

Wildmon also predicted President Clinton will sign the bill. “This being an election year, the president may sign it reluctantly,” Wildmon said. “I don’t think … he wants to give ‘the religious right’ any ammunition against Al Gore.”

The original case involved Cornerstone Television, an independently owned affiliate of the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board’s FamilyNet network operating under a commercial license in suburban, Pittsburgh, Pa. Cornerstone sought to acquire a noncommercial 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.

The FCC’s Jan. 28 reversal of its restrictions “was the result of God’s providential grace and the Christian community standing united for religious freedom,” Robert E. Reccord, NAMB president, said at the time in commenting on the 4-1 vote by FCC commissioners.

FamilyNet 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.