Congressmen say FCC rules target religious broadcasters

Monday, January 10, 2000

Several congressman have accused the Federal Communications Commission of creating broadcasting guidelines that could negatively affect the content of religious programming on public airwaves.

Rep. Michael Oxley, R-Ohio, along with three other representatives, sent a letter on Jan. 6 to FCC Chairman William Kennard attacking an FCC order that was released in late December. In a separate letter, the congressmen called on Vice President Al Gore to urge the FCC to withdraw its order.

On Dec. 29, the FCC approved a complicated swap of noncommercial broadcast licenses in Pittsburgh. Cornerstone Television Inc., a nonprofit station primarily broadcasting evangelical Christian programming, sought to swap its license with a noncommercial educational television station. In approving the swap, the FCC said that certain religious programming could not be considered educational programming.

That FCC ruling has also caused some problems for Republican Sen. John McCain in his quest for the GOP presidential nomination. McCain, who has made campaign-finance reform a central focus of his race for the White House, was accused of hypocrisy last week when it was discovered that he had written letters asking the FCC to take action in the Cornerstone matter, although he did not tell the agency how he thought commissioners should vote. The FCC’s decision did ultimately benefit a McCain contributor.

The Alliance for Progressive Action, a coalition of public interest groups in Pittsburgh, had opposed the swap, arguing that Cornerstone would not provide educational programming on the public station but would continue to broadcast its religious shows.

Cornerstone, in its motion to the FCC opposing Alliance’s arguments, said that the First Amendment protected it from FCC intrusion into the content of the company’s broadcasts. Cornerstone’s articles of incorporation state in part that its mission is to advance “an overall educational program schedule to teach basic moral and ethical principles derived from Judeo-Christian ethics, as set forth in the Bible.”

Although the FCC approved the swap, it disagreed with Cornerstone’s argument that the First Amendment protected the religious broadcasters from federal regulation.

“The First Amendment does not prevent the Commission from establishing incidental restrictions on speech that are required for a broadcaster to maintain eligibility for reserved allocation,” the FCC continued. “The Commission therefore can require broadcasters to operate on a noncommercial basis, and to present programming that is directed to serve the educational needs of the communities they serve.”

According to the FCC ruling, “programming primarily devoted to religious exhortation, proselytizing, or statements of personally-held religious views and beliefs generally would not qualify as general educational programming.”

The FCC’s comments regarding what qualified as educational programming and its specific mention of religious programming spurred Oxley and the other congressmen to accuse the FCC of unconstitutional regulation of religious speech.

Commissioners Michael Powell and Harold Furchtgott-Roth, in a dissent from the FCC ruling, argued that the ruling “singles out religious programming and purports to draw a line between programming that teaches about religion — which would count toward the new benchmark — and programming devoted to religious exhortation, proselytizing, or statements of personally-held religious views and beliefs,” which would not qualify for a noncommercial educational license.

Powell and Furchtgott-Roth wrote that “any attempt to make a distinction based on religion alone raises constitutional concerns.”

In their letter to Kennard, Oxley and Reps. Steve Largent, Chip Pickering, and Cliff Stearns said the FCC policy would “not stand.”

“The Commission is neither qualified nor does it have the legal authority to engage in this sort of line drawing,” the congressmen wrote. “The Commission has no business — no business whatsoever — singling out religious programming for special scrutiny. The policy you have instituted amounts to an unconstitutional restriction on religious speech. This type of content regulation and suppression of religious expression is utterly unacceptable. We advise you to reverse this ruling, or stand by an see it overturned legislatively or in court.”