- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2000

Both presidential candidates have defended the free speech of religious broadcasters but until Vice President Al Gore is clearer on his future policy, many conservatives on the airwaves are leaning toward Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

"We have no idea what will happen with a Gore administration," said E. Brandt Gustavson, president of National Religious Broadcasters.

As a senator in 1992, Mr. Gore fought to protect a "must carry" law that allows religious programs access to cable systems.

Many NRB members, who are conservative evangelicals, believe Mr. Gore also was influential in the FCC's January reversal of a December "additional guidance" ruling that limited religious programs on noncommercial educational channels to 50 percent of those channels.

But Mr. Bush, besides being a moral conservative with a free-market outlook, has taken an open policy stance that he "will not allow the FCC to censor or limit religious speech."

"The FCC should never single out religious speech for discrimination," he said, calling it "viewpoint discrimination" that has been ruled unconstitutional by the courts.

The Gore 2000 headquarters yesterday did not provide a campaign stance on the issue.

The nation's religious broadcasters, who make up about 10 percent of all radio and 8 percent of all television stations, each week reach 40 million people who listen to at least one program.

In 1996, the Clinton-Gore campaign may have drawn a larger evangelical vote by a last-minute push in religious broadcasting. They ran spots in 70 Christian radio markets saying Mr. Clinton "signed the Defense of Marriage Act" and "wants a complete ban on late-term abortions."

The nation's largest religious broadcasting vehicle, Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), claims to reach 70 million viewers and its founder, Paul Crouch, has invited Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush to appear separately on his prime-time talk show.

"Both candidates have been invited," said TBN attorney Colby May. "We'll only do it if both accept."

He said Mr. Crouch thanked Mr. Gore for championing the "must carry" rule in 1992 over a Republican White House veto, but denied what some describe as meetings between Mr. Gore and the TBN founder this year. Mr. Crouch left the NRB in 1990.

Still, some NRB members are worried about how they would fare under a Gore administration.

"[FCC Chairman] William Kennard is Gore's man," said Mr. Gustavson, which is why some believe the vice president stepped in to reverse the 50 percent ruling. But the one dissenting vote on the five-member panel came from Commissioner Gloria Tristani, who said the attack on the FCC's "guidance" was a campaign of "demagoguery."

Some religious broadcasters worry that Miss Tristani might be FCC chairman in a Gore administration.

Her office yesterday said that some Christian broadcasters have lauded her calls for decency in network broadcasting.

To protect religious broadcasters' access to educational channels, the Republican-controlled House passed a law this year barring FCC restrictions on religion, but a similar Senate bill is unlikely to be acted on this year.

"From what we understand, Al Gore has probably done more for religious broadcasters than George W. Bush," said Jerold M. Starr, executive director of Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting, which opposed the House bill.

Mr. Starr defended the FCC's December "guidance" because, "while protecting religious programming, it reasonably required that 50 percent be left for educational programs." He thinks Mr. Gore may have changed the FCC's mind in January, but now has "distanced" himself from the issue.

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