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THE FCC
AND RELIGIOUS  BROADCASTING

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Employment discrimination by religious broadcasters:

The Federal Communications Commission requires all broadcasters to follow its Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) rules which prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, and gender. However, until early 1998, it allowed "religious broadcasters" to take advantage of a partial exemption from these rules. [They define a "religious broadcaster" as "a licensee which is, or is closely affiliated with, a church, synagogue, or other religious entity, including a subsidiary of the religious entity."] Such broadcasters were allowed to discriminate on the basis of religion by refusing to hire or by firing some employees who do not "share their religious affiliation or belief." The exemption was limited to those who "espouse religious views over the air." Thus, a radio or TV station affiliated with the Seventh Day Adventist Church could fire one of their announcers or talk-show hosts if the latter had a religious conversion to Buddhism or became a Mormon. But they could not terminate or refuse to hire a bookkeeper, maintenance person or receptionist on religious grounds.  

On 1998-FEB-25, they issued an unofficial notice stating that "religious broadcasters may establish religious belief or affiliation as a job qualification for all station employees." So, a Buddhist receptionist or bookkeeper can now be fired on the grounds of her/his religion, even though their job did not involve a religious component. This ruling is binding on all radio stations and, because of limitations within the Communications Act, is a non-binding policy statement for TV stations.

The FCC appears to justify this decision on two grounds:

bulletReligious broadcasters felt that the previous ruling "excessively entangled the government in the affairs of religious entities.
bulletTrying to decide whether or not an specific employee met the "espousing" guideline was a bureaucratic nightmare.

As in so many civil rights cases, there was a conflict between two rights: 

bulletthe right of an employee to not be discriminated against on the basis of their religious beliefs, and 
bulletthe right of a religious employer to be religiously intolerant if they wish and achieve a homogeneous workplace where everyone shares "a common commitment to a licensee's basic religious objective and mission." 2

Fortunately, all broadcasters are still prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, color, national origin, or gender. 

One FCC commissioner, Harold W. Furchtgott-Roth, issued a separate statement on this 1998 policy. One of his concerns was how to determine whether a employee was a member of the religious group which sponsored the radio or station. For example, a Roman Catholic employee could still consider themselves to be a Catholic even though they had been excommunicated by the Church because they remarried.  

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Regulating religious content of non-commercial educational TV:

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution begins:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech..."

This Amendment erected a wall of separation between church and state which has been beneficial both to religion and the public. This contrasts with the situation in many other countries of the world which have a various degrees of integration between religion and government. This linkage between state and faith has led to loss of civil rights and a weakening of religion in many areas of the world.

During late 1999-DEC, in an apparent violation of the First Amendment, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a series of regulations which would have severely limit the religious content on non-commercial, educational television (NCETV) stations. (Many decades ago, the FCC reserved 20% of the FM broadcast band for non-commercial educational broadcasting. This was later extended to TV. There are currently about 373 NCETV stations in the U.S. of which about 20 are religious broadcasters.) December's regulations were passed with a 3 to 2 vote by the FCC board. 

The new requirements would have stipulated that NCETV broadcasters devote at least 50% of their programming to topics that promote the "educational, instructional or cultural needs of the community." The FCC states that most religious programming would not qualify towards that quota. 

The FCC statement said, in part:

"In order to comply with the requirement that a NCETV (Non Commercial Educational television) station 'be used primarily to serve the educational needs of the community,' we now clarify that this requirement is twofold.  

bulletFirst, with respect to the overall weekly program schedule, more than half of the hours of programming aired on a reserved channel must primarily serve an educational, instructional or culture purpose in the station's community of license.  
bulletSecond, in order to qualify as a program which is educational, instructional or cultural in character, and thus counted in determining compliance with the overall benchmark standard, a program must have as its primary purpose service to the educational, instructional or cultural needs of the community.  We 'will defer to the judgment of the broadcaster unless' the broadcaster's 'categorization appears to be arbitrary or unreasonable..."
<snip>

Conversely, however, not all programming, including programming about religious matters, would have qualified as 'general educational' programming.  For example, programming primarily devoted to "religious exhortation, proselytizing, or statements of personally held religious views and beliefs generally would not qualify as 'general educational' programming..."

The FCC gave a few examples of programs of a religious nature that it felt would meet the "education or cultural" needs of the community, and thus would qualify towards the 50% quota :

bulletPrograms which showed the religious funeral of a political leader.
bullet"Programs analyzing the role of religion in connection with historical or current events."
bullet"Exploring the connection between religious belief and physical and mental health."  
bulletBroadcasts which examined "the apparent dichotomy between science, technology and established religious tenets..."

Various religious organizations have responded negatively to the FCC ruling. Unfortunately, "media reports and press releases from religious groups have inaccurately suggested that it covers the full range of broadcasting stations, including radio outlets." 7 The ruling is actually restricted to NCETV stations and does not affect any radio broadcasters -- commercial or educational.

bulletKarl Stoll of the National Religious Broadcasters complained: "What the government is doing here is restricting certain types of religious expression, which we feel is unconstitutional...It's a problem when the government gets involved in determining what is educational and cultural and what is not."
bulletOn 2000-JAN-6, four congressmen [Rep. Mike Oxley (R-OH), Rep. Chip Pickering (R-MS), Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-FL), and Rep. Steve Largent (R-OK)] wrote a letter to the chairman of the FCC complaining that the commission "had no business - no business whatsoever - singling out religious programming for special scrutiny." They called the new guidelines "an unconstitutional restriction on religious speech."

According to DayWatch for 2000-JAN-11, "The vice-chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Representative Michael Oxley (R-OH) plans to introduce legislation to reverse the FCC's new guidelines limiting religious content on public television airwaves when Congress reconvenes on January 24th...'In our free society, the FCC has no business suppressing the expression of religious belief,' Oxley said. '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 is wrong, and it cannot stand.' " 8

The FCC restrictions would probably have give new life to the tenacious Christian urban legend which states that the late Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the well known Atheist activist, had promoted a FCC petition. It is alleged that PM 2493 would eventually ban all religious broadcasting by radio and television stations. She is alleged to have petitioned also for the elimination of Christmas songs, programs and carols from TV, radio stations, schools and office buildings. None of that is true, but the rumor lives on.

According to the Conservative News Service, Cornerstone TeleVision has refused to accept a broadcasting license from the FCC, because of the new guidelines. Cornerstone had originally applied for the license as part of a business deal with public television station WQED in Pittsburgh, PA. Their president Oleen Eagle said that the guidelines would "...jeopardize our ability to carry out our mission...there is no benefit that would justify the sacrifice of religious freedom required by the new FCC standards."

On 2000-JAN-28, the FCC reversed its ruling by a four to one vote. 9 The Commission said: "In hindsight we see the difficulty of minting clear definitional parameters for 'educational, instructional or cultural' programming, particularly without the benefit of broad comment. Therefore, we vacate our additional guidance. We will defer to the editorial judgment of the licensee unless such judgment is arbitrary or unreasonable."

Commissioner Michael Powell said in statement, "As I predicted in my dissenting statement opposing this 'additional guidance' in the original order, it has opened a Pandora's Box of problems. In today's decision we put the lid back on the box."

Commissioner Gloria Tristani voted against the reversal, saying, "This is a sad and shameful day for the FCC. In vacating last month's 'additional guidance,' ... this supposedly independent agency has capitulated to an organized campaign of distortion and demagoguery."

Rep. Michael Oxley (R-OH) called the reversal "a complete and total victory for free religious expression. Religious broadcasters and their listeners were a target for an FCC that sought to limit their freedom to express religious faith. It was wrong, and I'm thrilled that the FCC has seen the error of its ways."

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Micropower religious broadcasting:

FCC regulations permit some unlicensed FM broadcasting by "micropower" radio stations. However, they were typically limited to less than 1 watt of power and are thus restricted to a range of a few thousand feet or less. Commercial and educational licenses are only granted to stations broadcasting over 100 watts. Various fees and the cost of engineering studies raise the licensing costs to over $50,000 per station. Between the unlicensed stations under one watt and the licensed stations over 100 watt, lies a no-man's land, currently occupied by as many as 1,000 illegal "pirate radio" stations. These are underground stations, typically operated by individuals and involving perhaps a few thousand dollars investment. They have interesting names, like Free Radio Berkeley,  Radio X, DC Protest Radio, and Radio Mutiny. 5 The FCC located and closed down hundreds of these every year. 

Low cost licensing of micro radio stations between 1 and 100 watts will provide a much greater diversity of opinion than is currently heard on regular radio. Robert McChesney, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison wrote: "By failing to accommodate the creation and use of new micro radio technologies that are simple and inexpensive to operate, the FCC has failed to meet its obligation to establish a licensing scheme that meets the public interest." 4

William E Kennard, FCC chairman since 1997, proposed that the airwaves be opened up to "low-power FM broadcasters, so that everyone from university students and church groups to independent radio producers and civil rights activists could enjoy greater access to listeners. After reviewing a series of petitions filed on behalf of self-proclaimed "microbroadcasters" yearning for a legal on-air voice, Kennard last January [1998] introduced a proposal for new low-power FM broadcast licenses that could allow thousands of small broadcasters to operate at power ratings of between 1 to 10 watts, 100 watts, and 1,000 watts, filling in the gaps that now separate bigger stations' signals on the FM dial." 6

The proposal was approved on 2000-JAN-20. Noncommercial stations with a few watts power and a range up to seven miles will be allowed  broadcast. The FM radio airwaves would be accessible to small groups of all types. Anyone with a few thousand dollars to invest in equipment, and a small army of volunteers could establish a religious broadcasting station and reach at least a portion of their city. License applications are expected from individual churches, schools, "alternative musicians, and highway departments that want to warn commuters about traffic problems." The National Religious Broadcasters object, saying that the microbroadcasters might create static or distorted signals for established stations. [To the author, an Engineering Physics graduate having taken a communications option, this argument seems rather weak.]

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References

  1. "FCC modifies EEO enforcement for religious broadcasters," Report MM 98-2, at: http://www.fcc.gov/Bureaus/Mass_Media/News_Releases/
  2. FCC "Order and Policy Statement," adopted 1998-FEB-5. Online at: http://www.fcc.gov/Bureaus/Mass_Media/Orders/1998/fcc98019.txt 
  3. "FCC sets its sights on religious broadcasters," Maranatha Christian Journal, 2000-JAN-11 at: http://www.mcjonline.com/news/00/20000110c.htm 
  4. The Freedom Forum Online has a series of essays on micro power radio at: http://www.freedomforum.org/speech/series/
  5. "Micropower radio stations on the Web" at: http://www.infoshop.org/stations.html 
  6. Alex Markels, "Low power to the people," at: http://www.motherjones.com/mother_jones/JA99/
  7. "Religious groups protest controversial FCC ruling," AANEWS bulletin, 2000-JAN-11
  8. "Bill Seeks To Reverse FCC Religious Broadcasters Ruling," Maranatha Christian Journal, at: http://www.mcjonline.com/news/00/20000111e.htm 
  9. "Under fire, FCC reverses religious broadcasting ruling," Maranatha Christina Journal, from a Conservative News Service release. See: http://www.mcjonline.com/news/00/20000129a.htm 

Copyright © 2000 & 2002 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolernace
Originally written: 2000-JAN-11
Latest update: 2002-AUG-5
Author: B.A. Robinson

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