- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 21, 2000

The House yesterday easily approved a bill that would limit the power of the Federal Communications Commission to regulate religious broadcasters, a vote prompted by an FCC decree that church-related programming is not educational.

The Republican-backed bill was approved along party lines, 264-159, with only six Republican lawmakers opposed and 56 Democrats breaking ranks to join the majority.

House Republican leaders hailed the measure's passage as welcome news on the day after the Supreme Court ruled against prayer at public high school sporting events.

"There is a war being waged on prayer and religion right now by liberals who are taking every opportunity to make America as godless as humanly possible," said Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, chairman of House Republicans. "The court may have banned prayer yet again, but the House has defended religion on the airwaves."

The FCC ruled in December that some religious radio and television programs, including church services, cannot be considered educational. To qualify for a noncommercial license, the commission said, a broadcaster must devote half of its regularly scheduled air time to educational programs.

The agency rescinded its hugely unpopular decision in January, and supporters of the bill said yesterday they want to ensure that the FCC never again singles out religious broadcasters for special scrutiny.

"We are simply trying to prevent and prohibit the FCC from going down a dangerous path of regulating religious speech," said Rep. Charles W. "Chip" Pickering Jr., Mississippi Republican and a sponsor of the measure.

Opponents of the bill said it could result in fringe religious groups saturating the airwaves with unusual or dangerous religious doctrine.

"It could be a cult," said Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat. "How can it be a good thing for one religion to move in a cult, potentially … and just broadcast their religion all day long?"

Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat, said the legislation would require the FCC to give preferential treatment in licensing to such sects as the Branch Davidians, the white supremacist World Church of the Creator and the People's Temple, whose founder, Jim Jones, led more than 900 followers in a mass suicide in 1978 in Guyana.

"Satanism would qualify because it's a religion," Mr. Dingell said.

But Rep. Michael G. Oxley, Ohio Republican, said in an interview that Democrats were offering "a bogus argument." He said the bill forbids a station from making "arbitrary or unreasonable" determinations about what type of programming serves its community.

Mr. Oxley said the legislation is needed because, "The FCC never acknowledged their procedural, legal or constitutional errors."

The legislation states that a nonprofit organization is eligible for a noncommercial educational license if it broadcasts material that the organization determines serves an educational, instructional, cultural or religious purpose.

A companion bill in the Senate was referred to the Commerce Committee on Jan. 27 but has had no further action.

Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, Louisiana Republican, head of the House Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications, said religious broadcasters now have 800 to 1,000 noncommercial radio licenses and soon will have 23 television licenses.

"The FCC tried to take them away, in effect," Mr. Tauzin said. "This bill prevents that."

The commission said that programs "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 reserves some television channels and radio bands for noncommercial educational programming. Most religious broadcasters operate with commercial licenses and some have noncommercial permits.

The American Family Association, a nonprofit Christian group based in Tupelo, Miss., that broadcasts religious programming to more than 200 stations, said the bill would prohibit the FCC from interfering in religious content.

"In America, the government has no business dictating content to religious broadcasters," said AFA President Don Wildmon.

Patrick Trueman, the AFA's director of governmental affairs, said the initial FCC decision was "very offensive to us."

"Religious expression does meet the educational needs of the community," Mr. Trueman said.

Mr. Markey offered an amendment stating that a holder of a noncommercial educational license must provide educational programming. That measure was defeated 250-174.

Mr. Markey said under the bill, the FCC could have to decide which of two religious groups vying for a single license is more worthy.

"Nobody believes it's the job of the FCC to make religious determinations," Mr. Markey said. "We will have turned the Federal Communications Commission into the Faith-based Content Commission."

But Mr. Oxley said the legislation is a "measured response to the effort to single out religious content for special scrutiny."

"The FCC has no business discriminating against faith-based programming," he said.

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