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SBC agency plans formal appeal of controversial FCC decision

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–The Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board plans to file legal action formally seeking reversal of a recent Federal Communications Commission ruling affecting a number of Christian television stations. The ruling placed new limits on the amount of certain types of programming that could be aired by stations operating under a non-commercial educational license.

Unless the decision is revisited within the next few days, a “Petition for Reconsideration” will be filed with the FCC, said Robert E. Reccord, NAMB president. If that is not successful, he said, the agency will appeal the ruling in federal court.

The filing would be on behalf of FamilyNet, a NAMB subsidiary that provides Christian television programming to approximately 100 affiliate stations; Channel 38 Christian Television, a FamilyNet affiliate in El Paso, Texas, that would be affected by the ruling; and several church broadcast ministries that air their services nationally.

The FCC ruling released Dec. 29 involved Cornerstone Television — an independently owned FamilyNet affiliate operating under a commercial license in suburban Pittsburgh, Pa., that sought to acquire a noncommercial educational license.

“The deal in Pittsburgh is the first casualty of this misguided FCC decision but will not be the last if it goes unchallenged,” Reccord said. “This is not the religious community crying, ‘Wolf!” when there is no wolf. This wolf is real, and Cornerstone just experienced its first bite.”

Although the Cornerstone license transfer was approved, the FCC added a new qualification that at least 50 percent of programming 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 from 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 ruling stated.

Cornerstone has since said that because of the new restrictions it will abandon its plans to acquire the license, an effort that had been in process for about three years.

The plan called for Cornerstone to exchange its existing commercial license in the Pittsburgh suburb of Greensburg with one of two noncommercial educational licenses owned by a public broadcasting station in Pittsburgh. The Greensburg license would have then been sold to a subsidiary of Paxson Communications Corp, a commercial broadcaster. Instead, Cornerstone will continue to broadcast under its current commercial license.

Randy Singer, NAMB’s executive vice president, said the agency respects Cornerstone for its decision not to “handcuff their ability to share the gospel with the new anti-religious parameters that apply to ‘educational’ programming. They have made a bold statement that they will not sacrifice their religious programs even for the substantial financial benefits that the deal provided.”

But many FamilyNet affiliates don’t have the choice of operating under a commercial or noncommercial license, he said.

“To each of them, this ominous ruling threatens their reason for being and dares them to proceed with religious programming at the risk of losing their license. That is precisely the type of government censorship that the First Amendment is designed to prevent.”

Singer, a trial attorney who practiced communications law prior to joining NAMB, called the ruling a “frontal attack” on both religious programs and the religious liberty that undergirds them.

“The FCC’s view is that ‘programming primarily devoted to religious exhortation, proselytizing, or statements of personally held religious views’ can never be educational or cultural so as to qualify as ‘generally educational programming,'” Singer said. “But evangelicals view worship services as the highest form of cultural experience and firmly believe that there is no higher form of ‘education’ than teaching the precepts of God’s Word.”

The ruling also unconstitutionally singles out religious programs for special scrutiny, Singer said, violating the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment.

“In a double whammy, it violates the ‘establishment clause’ by making the FCC the judge and jury on which religious programs are ‘educational’ and which are not,” he said. “The notion of the FCC commissioners reviewing the content of religious programs — and even individual church services — to determine compliance with the FCC’s newly announced guidelines should make every Christian shudder.”

The ruling also opens “the floodgates of litigation” against many cash-poor Christian stations across the country, Singer said.

“Every person with a beef about the religious nature of the programming can complain to the FCC and petition for revocation of the license,” he said. “The ruling is a dream come true for lawyers, but a nightmare for religious freedom. It can and must be challenged on constitutional grounds.”

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 William Kennard is [email protected].

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  • James Dotson