Ohio congressman to seek reversal of FCC ruling on religious broadcasts

Wednesday, January 19, 2000

An Ohio congressman says he will introduce a bill next week to overturn part of a federal agency's order regarding religious broadcasting.

Earlier this month, Rep. Michael G. Oxley, R-Ohio, attacked a Federal Communications Commission ruling as an unconstitutional infringement on the rights of religious broadcasters.

In late December, the FCC approved a noncommercial educational license for Cornerstone Television Inc., a nonprofit evangelical group. In doing so, the FCC turned away challenges by a Pittsburgh group that argued Cornerstone would use its license to broadcast Christian programming instead of educational programming. By a vote of 3-2, the FCC accepted Cornerstone's arguments that its programming, including a Bible-study program in conjunction with Oral Roberts University, was educational as defined by the FCC.

The FCC's ruling, however, stated that broadcasters who have such noncommercial education licenses must provide half of their overall weekly programming for educational, instructional or cultural purposes. Moreover, the ruling concluded that programming “primarily devoted to religious exhortation, proselytizing, or statements of personally held religious views and beliefs” could not be considered educational.

Oxley and three other Republican congressmen urged FCC Chairman William Kennard to overturn the ruling, claiming it “targets religious broadcasters and seeks to manipulate their programming content so it will be more to the liking of the FCC.”

Not satisfied with a response sent by Kennard last week, Oxley has said he will introduce legislation, called the Religious Freedom Broadcasting Act, when Congress reconvenes Jan. 24 to reverse the FCC ruling. The act states that the guidelines contained in the FCC order “shall not be effective.”

“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 wrong, and it cannot stand.”

In his Jan. 12 letter to Oxley and Reps. Steve Largent, Chip Pickering and Cliff Stearns, Kennard defended the Cornerstone ruling and denied that it targeted religious broadcasters.

Broadcasters seeking noncommercial educational licenses “have always been required to demonstrate that their programming will be primarily educational in nature and thus serve the educational purpose for which the channel was reserved,” Kennard wrote. “The Commission's decision in this case therefore does not establish new rules, but simply clarifies long-standing FCC policy applicable to any broadcaster seeking to use an NCE-reserved channel.”

Programming of any nature is permitted on noncommercial stations, Kennard added, “as long as more than half of the overall weekly program schedule serves an educational, instructional or cultural purpose in the station's community of license.”

The chairman also said that most religious broadcasters would not be affected by the ruling, because they use commercial channels.

The National Religious Broadcasters responded to Kennard's defense of the ruling by calling on Congress to support Oxley's legislation.

“If allowed to stand, this new ruling will likely force religious television stations across the country to modify their programming to satisfy the FCC's new quota and restrictive definition,” NRB President Brandt Gustavson wrote in a letter sent to Congress on Jan. 13. “NRB believes that the FCC's discriminatory bias against religious educational and cultural expression is fundamentally at odds with this country's founding principles. In particular, we believe it represents a clear violation of the freedom of religious expression protected by the First Amendment.”

Five U.S. senators have also asked Kennard to withdraw the ruling's guidelines. Sens. Tim Hutchinson, Don Nickles, James Inhofe, Mike Enzi and Jesse Helms sent a letter on Jan. 14 to Kennard, in which they said the ruling was detrimental to religious freedom.

“In the midst of a license transfer proceeding, you have added unnecessary and unusual language to a ruling which we believe could lead to a trampling of both the spirit and letter of the United States Constitution,” the senators said. “Chairman Kennard, the government does not have the authority to suppress religious speech on the basis that it may not be 'educational' or 'cultural.' This misinterpretation of our right to free speech and religious expression, guaranteed by the First Amendment, will no doubt further erode the freedoms our Founding Fathers fought for over two centuries ago.”

Jim Henderson, senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a law firm dedicated to religious liberties founded by the Christian Coalition, said that Oxley's bill was gaining support in Congress and called the FCC ruling “an unfortunate development.”

The ruling produced changes that won't stand, Henderson said.

“I think Congress, including a number of Democrats, will sign on to corrective legislation,” he said. “I don't know what they were thinking, but the result is a ruling that targets religious broadcasters and the broadcast of religious programming.”

Noting that Congress has great supervisory control over the FCC, Henderson said that if Kennard and the commissioners “have a lick of sense” they would recall the decision. Otherwise, Henderson said, Kennard and the other commissioners could be called before House committees to answer questions.