Public and religious broadcasters: strains between neighbors
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Tensions between the secular and religious worlds are played out in broadcasting as elsewhere in American life:
- Public and religious broadcasters share the reserved noncommercial educational at the low end of the dial and increasingly compete for frequencies for new transmitters.
- The FCC and Congress have struggled to devise rules to referee the competition, defining the spectrum rights of the two kinds of broadcasters..
- And because many public stations receive some government support, there have been repeated constitutional disputes over broadcasts of religious programming.
At the same time, public broadcasters make an effort to provide coverage of religious news. Public TV carries the only national weekly broadcast news program on the subject area, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly
Religious broadcasters including some with large financial resources and satellite networks of many local stations have asked the FCC for hundreds of reserved noncommercial FM channels, prompting some public radio leaders to urge defensive action. In rural areas, religious broadcasters' steady expansion often blocked new translator stations that otherwise would be used to extend access to public radio.
Public radio was shocked in 1996 when a major for-profit religious radio chain put in the high bid to buy WDCU-FM in Washington, D.C., from a financially weakened university. NPR and a public-interest law firm considered challenging the sale. A station broker meanwhile tried to "pry loose" other public stations owned by colleges that might be tempted by offers. Eventually, the station was bought by C-SPAN, a nonprofit network comparable to public radio.
Who should the FCC allow to operate on noncommercial channels? The FCC's new point system, adopted in 2000, doesn't take sides on the secular/religious question, though it does favor applicants who don't hold other channels..
In another proceeding, at the end of 1999, the FCC attempted to favor educational broadcasters in "guidance" attached to the WQED case, but the commission soon backed off. [Text of the now-withdrawn guidance.]
Furious conservatives in Congress blistered an FCC member in a May 2000 hearing. House members offered bills to give religious broadcasters equal status with educational broadcasters, and the House approved such a bill. Passage by the Senate was thwarted.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
The First Amendment (see box) prohibits government support of an official church in this country. It also says the government can't tell the press what not to publish.
Interpretation of these clauses have been in conflict in public radio, where a number of the stations are licensed to church-related colleges and carry some religious programs along with typical public radio programs.
The same handful of stations also have received federal money through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and, in the past, through the Commerce Department's Public Telecommunications Facilities Program (PTFP).
The most prominent case, involving Fordham University's FM station in New York City, was resolved in December 1995, when the government backed off on its strict interpretation of the First Amendment.
It marked the government's second nearly its third policy reversal in the Fordham case. The university's station, WFUV-FM, had been told during the last months of the Bush Administration that it would be ineligible for PTFP grants because it broadcasts a Mass on Sundays.
Then, after the station heard that the ruling might be reversed, Larry Irving, the new Clinton Administration assistant secretary of commerce overseeing PTFP took a hard line on the issue, and Fordham sued. In 1994, a federal court ruled that PTFP was within its authority to do so.
When the eligibility dispute spread to Wake Forest University's station in North Carolina, Sen. Jesse Helms spoke up, and PTFP again began to rethink its policy.
In December 1995, Larry Irving reversed his position and let WFUV receive a PTFP grant.
In the meantime, the weekly presence of a full Saturday of religious programming on a public radio station inflamed some listeners in the Chattanooga, Tenn., area, bringing National Public Radio into the issue. In July 1995 the Tennessee station quit NPR under pressure.
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