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Religious broadcasters mobilize efforts to fight FCC ruling

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A coalition of religious broadcasters, politicians and special interest groups has mobilized a grassroots effort to fight a new ruling by the Federal Communications Commission that would restrict noncommercial television stations from airing religious programming.

The decision, released Dec. 29, ruled that broadcasts “primarily devoted to religious exhortation, proselytizing or statements of personally-held religious views or beliefs” are restricted under the FCC’s educational programming licenses. More than 125 noncommercial television broadcasters may be affected by the decision.

The FCC’s ruling was part of 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.

Specifically, the FCC said broadcasters must devote 50 percent of their regularly scheduled air time to educational programs. The commission also defined what content would count as educational. It said church services would not qualify as educational programming, unless the service was the funeral of a national leader.

The FCC’s decision has caused widespread concern throughout the nation’s religious community. National Religious Broadcasters sent its 1,200 members a memo outlining the FCC’s ruling. “We are preparing a strategy to fight this ruling,” said NRB spokesman Karl Stoll. “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.

“We have an obligation to serve our communities with instructional, educational and cultural programs. If I have a church service on Sunday and it’s no longer considered educational, that is terrible,” Paxson said.

Paxson likened his upcoming battle with the FCC to the biblical story of David fighting Goliath. “I think the support we’ve been getting verifies how wrong this decision is,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Michael Oxley, R-Ohio, unveiled new legislation Jan. 11 that would reverse the FCC’s decision. Oxley said he would introduce the legislation when Congress reconvenes on Jan. 24.

“In our free society, the FCC has no business suppressing the expression of religious belief,” Oxley said in a prepared statement. “I know the FCC will try to put a good face on this action, but the simple truth is the commission is restricting those who express faith. This is wrong, and it cannot stand.”

Oxley joined Reps. Steve Largent, Chip Pickering and Cliff Stearns in a letter written to Vice President Al Gore and FCC Chairman William Kennard protesting the decision. Pickering, a Southern Baptist, told Baptist Press he is very concerned about the ruling.

“This was an arrogant overreach by the FCC,” Pickering said. “We cannot afford to let this ruling stand. There is no place for the government to place value on religious expression.”

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  • Todd Starnes