- The Washington Times - Monday, September 4, 2000

The Federal Communications Commission has been hit by a fresh tide of letters from Christians reacting to rumors that Madalyn Murray O'Hair's atheist group wants to ban religion from the airwaves.
Despite the disappearance and presumed death of Mrs. O'Hair five years ago, the letters have proved unstoppable since the rumor began in 1974.
This year, the FCC said, the volume of mail has increased with a new version of the rumor that says American Atheists Inc. is seeking to censor "Touched by an Angel," the popular CBS series.
"We're getting tons of [letters]," FCC spokeswoman Rosemary Kimball said. "It began with a rumor in 1974, and everything has flowed from that."
The rumor was that atheists, based on a petition with thousands of signatures, had gotten an FCC hearing to try to shut down religious broadcasts.
In fact, the only such "hearing" was a ruling the FCC made in 1975. It rejected a 1974 petition by two broadcasters who asked the agency to bar religious groups from noncommercial education channels.
During the eight months that the petition waited for action, the rumor spread that it had requested a ban on all religious broadcasting and protest letters from Christians had poured in.
"By the time the FCC ruled in 1975, it had received an estimated 700,000 letters," said David Emery, an Internet writer who looks at "urban legends" and hoaxes.
The 1974 petition had been "routinely assigned the number RM-2493," the FCC has explained.
After the ruling, the rumor took a twist: Petition 2493 was filed by Mrs. O'Hair and, with tens of thousands of signatures, she had gotten an FCC hearing.
To stop the rumored hearing, a "concerned Christians" letter circulated, saying, "We need one million signed letters" and including a portion to be clipped and sent to Washington.
The newest "cycle" of the letter still claims that the atheist group "has now been granted a federal hearing," but now to ban the CBS show and other religious fare.
"CBS may be forced to discontinue 'Touched by an Angel' because they use the word God in every program," says the letter, which is dated January.
The letter cites the legal case in which Mrs. O'Hair "successfully eliminated the use of Bible reading and prayer from schools."
A year after the 1962 Supreme Court ruling against organized prayer in public schools, it used the O'Hair lawsuit to also ban organized Bible reading. The plaintiff was Mrs. O'Hair's son, William, 14, who attended school in Baltimore.
The FCC had received 25 million protest petitions by 1989. Today, the rumor is also circulated by fax machine and e-mail.
"At least more Christians are bothering to ask whether it's true," American Atheists President Ellen Johnson said. "Our members still see it circulating in some office, and they e-mail me, 'You won't believe what's circulating here.' "
She said that atheist groups have protested against chaplain funding in Congress, "In God We Trust" on money, vouchers for religious schools, and funding to faith-based welfare groups but have never asked for an FCC hearing.
"I think there is somebody behind this," she said of the 26-year-old rumor. "Christians should be upset that it's making them look pretty foolish."
In the early 1980s, according to reports, the FCC asked Congress for $250,000 to stop the petition by a 100,000-piece mailing to apparent proponents and 30,000 letters to religious leaders.
"Nothing put a damper on it," Miss Kimball said. "We have tried over the years, but it won't work."
Despite the meaningless of the exercise, the FCC makes sure the mailings are "logged in," she said.
The agency has hoped to staunch the flow of mail by educating the public that, contrary to the rumor, it has no censorship powers.
The FCC "cannot direct any broadcaster to present, or refrain from presenting, announcements or programs on religion," it said.
The recent "Touched by an Angel" alert states that "all Sunday worship services being broadcast either by radio or TV will stop." It urges recipients to "send the form below to everyone" and says, "Please do not take this lightly."
One e-mail version says, "The only way for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing."

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