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Religious Right Attempts Takeover of Airwaves

After a recent vote to grant a non-commercial educational (NCE) broadcast license to a fundamentalist broadcaster in Pittsburgh, the FCC decided it needed to clarify the standards that guide broadcasters operating under NCE licenses. As public television stations, NCE’s are less expensive to buy and enjoy a special tax status and other public benefits.

This clarification drew attacks from fundamentalist Christian television broadcasters nationwide, who are upset because it would inhibit their ability to spread sectarian religious views with federal aid. The FCC withdrew the guidance, but that was not enough; ultra-conservatives called on Congress to virtually eliminate the FCC’s ability to regulate public television. Religious Right allies in the House responded with two bills: H.R. 4201 (the Noncommercial Broadcasting Freedom of Expression Act of 2000) and H.R. 3525 (the Religious Broadcasting Freedom Act). S. 2215 (the Noncommercial Broadcasters Eligibility Act of 2000) was introduced in the Senate.

History of Non-Commercial Educational (NCE) Broadcast Guidelines

The effort to clarify NCE broadcast guidelines came about as the FCC considered granting far-right, fundamentalist Pittsburgh broadcaster, Cornerstone TeleVision, an NCE license. Cornerstone had sought to take over a Pittsburgh PBS station’s second channel, which the PBS station could no longer afford, and then sell its commercial channel to conservative Paxson Communications, which was to finance the deal. Cornerstone TeleVision, with an NCE license, could broadcast at a fraction of the cost of a commercially licensed broadcaster.

Among Cornerstone TeleVision’s programming is a telecast of talk- show host Bob Enyart’s radio program. Enyart, who describes himself as “America’s most popular self-proclaimed right-wing religious fanatic, homophobic, anti-choice talk-show host,” has said, “homos do not deserve equal rights. The only rights homos should have is the right to a fair and speedy trial.” Enyart has advocated that the acronym HIV represent “Heterosexuality Is Vindicated!” Cornerstone also airs programming urging viewers to help void the U.S. government of “godless men,” as the Founding Fathers would have intended.

The proceedings came to public attention late last fall, after Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, who heads the Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee, urged the FCC to move on the Cornerstone/Paxson applications. Paxson’s substantial campaign donations to McCain generated controversy around the Senator’s action on Paxson’s behalf.

On December 20 of last year, the FCC agreed to go ahead with the deal, however, they also voted to clarify the rules for NCE licenses. This clarification, which evolved from existing guidelines, was simple: NCE programming must be “primarily educational” and “responsive to the overall public”; educational programming must be at least half of broadcast material and “programming primarily devoted to religious exhortation (e.g. preaching), proselytizing or personal statements of belief,” while permitted, would not count toward the educational requirement.

Because a large number of Cornerstone TeleVision’s programs would not pass muster under the guidelines, it pulled out of the deal. Right-wing religious broadcasters and their boosters around the country became enraged, likening the FCC’s efforts to regulate NCE broadcasters to religious censorship.

At that point, Vice President and Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore stepped in and convinced the FCC to scrap their standards. The Religious Right then sought to permanently block the imposition of standards by prompting its allies in Congress to try to further hobble the FCC’s authority with legislation.

Initially, H.R. 4201 would have provided preferential treatment for religious broadcasters and prohibited the FCC from enforcing any content guidelines on NCE programming that do not apply to commercial broadcasting licenses – including restrictions on commercials. As it stands now, the bill requires the FCC to equate proselytizing with educational programming and eliminates current requirements for “reasonable access” for political candidates.

The Right Attacks The FCC

The reaction from personalities on the far right to the FCC’s clarified guidelines was swift and warned of federal efforts to restrict religious liberty.

Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, appearing on Pat Robertson’s January 26 edition of The 700 Club, said that the ruling was “a slippery slide of silencing, step by step, evangelicals, Bible- believing Christians who particularly take a stand [against] the moral and social issues that the Democratic Party today has embraced. And it is indeed an effort, I think, to silence the people of God in this country who dare to take a stand against the abrogation and denigration of the Judeo-Christian ethic.”

One of the legislation’s sponsors, Rep. Michael G. Oxley (R-OH), agreed with Falwell’s view that it was the FCC’s intent to limit the religious speech of Americans. Said Oxley, “[r]eligious broadcasters and their listeners were a target for an FCC that sought to limit their freedom to express religious faith.”

Indeed, the FCC ruling was described by right-wing groups as an outright attack on religion itself. Stephen M. Crampton, Chief Counsel for Don Wildmon’s American Family Association Center For Law and Policy, said the ruling “evinces an acute hostility to religion.”

Supporters of the legislation made no effort to hide the fact that they believe they are constitutionally entitled to use the public’s educational air space for the promotion of their interpretation of Christianity. Dr. E. Brandt Gustavson L.L.D., president of the National Religious Broadcasters, acknowledged in testimony at a congressional hearing on the bills that the decision to allow Cornerstone TeleVision to broadcast as an NCE would “have provided millions of dollars for Cornerstone to continue broadcasting the gospel.”

Although the abandoned language in the FCC’s clarification restricted sectarian proselytizing only when it amounted to over half of the content of material aired under the special NCE classification, fundamentalist broadcasters cast the FCC’s guidelines as a muzzle on their First Amendment rights in general. Donald Wildmon, while testifying in the aforementioned legislative hearing, said, “legislation protecting the freedom of speech for the religious broadcaster must be enacted to protect that freedom from being usurped by the FCC in the future.”

H.R. 4201 is scheduled to go to the House floor sometime this month.

[This report was written by People for the American Way Foundation (PAW). The PAW is committed to defending democracy and bringing the ideals of community, opportunity, diversity, equality and fairness together in a strong, united voice.]

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