January 24, 2000
volume 11, no. 16
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Articles provided through Catholic World News and Church News at Noticias Eclesiales and International Dossiers, Daily Dispatches and Features at ZENIT International News Agency. CWN, NE and ZENIT are not affiliated with the Daily CATHOLIC but provide this service via e-mail to the Daily CATHOLIC Monday through Friday.

FCC Ruling Limits Religious Broadcasts
    PITTSBURGH, JAN 21 (ZENIT).- In reaction to an FCC ruling limiting religious program, Christian broadcaster Cornerstone Television announced Wednesday that it will decline a noncommercial educational license in Pittsburgh, PA.

    The FCC guidelines require broadcasters with noncommercial educational (NCE) licenses to devote at least half of their programming hours to topics that serve the "educational, instructional, or cultural needs of the community." The FCC further clarifies that such programming cannot be "primarily devoted to religious exhortation, proselytizing, or statements of personally-held religious views and beliefs."

    A broadcast of the Mass for shut-ins, for instance, is automatically considered to have no "cultural" value because it involves religion, while a poetry-reading program would presumably be acceptable.

    Cornerstone President Oleen Eagle stated that the FCC guidelines "clearly violate the First Amendment to the United States Constitution by singling out religious programming for special scrutiny, regulating the content of religious speech, and suppressing religious expression by prior restraint."

    Four House members co-signed a letter demanding a reversal of the FCC ruling, and Rep. Mike Oxley plans to introduce legislation to change the guidelines. Two dissenting members of the FCC committee criticized the majority for carrying out the proceedings without a public hearing. Some 95 religious stations are affected by the new rules, as the rest have normal commercial licenses, which are not covered by the ruling.

    FCC Chairman William E. Kennard responded to the Congressmen in a letter. According to Kennard, the FCC went against opponents of the transaction, who said religious programming was not educational. "The FCC stated that certain programming dealing with religious matters can also be deemed educational and thus satisfy the eligibility requirements for NCE channels."

    In the original ruling, examples of such programming were given: it could explore religion in relation to science, technology, or culture; apply religious principles to real-life ethical dilemmas; probe the psychological effects of prayer; and even discuss religious texts from a historical viewpoint -- so long as the purpose is not to convince listeners that religious teachings are true.

    In practice, however, it can be difficult to apply these criteria, according to Justin Torres, the reporter for who broke the story. In an article in "The Weekly Standard," he writes, "It's hard to imagine, for example, how one might apply biblical principles to ethical dilemmas without tipping one's hand as to whether one subscribes to the Ten Commandments. Moreover, members of the board issued a flurry of separate dissents and concurrences that further cloud the regulations. Commissioner Susan Ness, in a concurring opinion marked by handwringing about 'tread[ing] carefully to preserve... cherished objectives,' wonders, for example, whether a 'performance of Handel's Messiah [would] be primarily educational if it were performed at the Kennedy Center, but not primarily educational if it were performed in a church.' "

    According to Kennard, the new rules are only a clarification of existing policies, which have always had the "50% educational" clause. The new rules only clarify that most religious programming serves no "educational, instructional, or cultural purpose in the station's community of license."

    Representative Oxley was not convinced by Kennard's reply. He introduced a bill on January 11 that would reverse the FCC order and force future new rulings to be open to a period of public comment. Several other Republican representatives are co-sponsoring, including majority leader Dick Armey, along with one Democrat, Ralph Hall of Texas. ZE00012122


January 24, 2000
volume 11, no. 16

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