FCC should let broadcasters be

Sunday, January 23, 2000

When is religious speech “educational” and when is it not? Should a federal agency have the authority to make such a distinction?

These knotty questions are at the heart of a new dispute concerning Federal Communications Commission rules for licensing noncommercial educational television stations.

Last month, the FCC approved a license for a Pittsburgh station that plans to broadcast programming based primarily on evangelical Christian interpretations of the Bible.

But in granting the license, the FCC ruled that some religious programming would count as “educational” and some would not. Now several congressmen have charged that this new policy is an “unconstitutional restriction on religious speech.”

A little background: A limited number of licenses are available for noncommercial educational television stations, and the FCC is empowered to decide who is qualified to get them.

In order to avoid unconstitutional restraints on free speech, the FCC places a few “incidental restrictions” on the content of programming on noncommercial channels. Applicants must agree to operate on a noncommercial basis and to present programming that serves the educational needs of the community.

What counts as educational? The FCC has long defined “educational programming” very broadly, including in that classification programs “which involve the teaching of matters relating to religion.” In 1977, for example, the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago was granted a license, even though its programming was to be primarily religious in content.

So far, so good: To exclude religion-based groups from consideration when granting licenses for noncommercial educational stations would be unjust and unconstitutional.

But now the FCC has decided to define more specifically what it means by “educational” religious programming.

Therein lies the problem. Is a sermon educational? What about Bible classes taught by evangelical Christians?

According to this latest FCC ruling, Bible studies count as educational programming, even when the Bible is taught from an evangelical perspective. Church services, however, are not considered educational. Nor are any other programs devoted to what the FCC calls “religious exhortation, proselytizing, or statements of personally-held religious views and beliefs.”

But surely this doesn't make much sense. After all, evangelical Protestants (and people of many other faiths) don't make neat distinctions between teaching and preaching the Word of God.

The Pittsburgh case proves the impossibility of separating proselytizing from education in much religious expression. Most of the programming approved by the FCC as “educational” is, in fact, also religious exhortation by any reasonable definition of the term.

Even if a bright line could be drawn between evangelical Bible studies and sermons, the FCC shouldn't have the authority to draw it. Any attempt by the federal government to restrict religious speech — or to entangle the government in the business of determining what is or isn't “proselytizing” — raises serious First Amendment questions.

The objecting congressmen are right: Religious broadcasters, like secular broadcasters, should be free to decide the content of their educational programming on noncommercial stations.

Viewers don't need the FCC to protect them from programming they don't like, whether religious or secular. A remote control works just fine.