by David Sisler

"Madalyn Murray O'Hair, an atheist whose efforts successfully eliminated the use of Bible reading and prayer from public schools, has now been granted a federal hearing in Washington, D.C. on the same subject by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Her petition, RM-2493, would ultimately pave the way to stop the reading of the Gospel on the air waves of America. She took her petition along with 287,000 signatures to back her stand. If her attempt is successful, all Sunday worship services being broadcast, either by radio, or television will stop."

It is highly likely that some time in the last 25 years you have seen the above paragraph in a mimeographed letter, or as an insert in your church bulletin, or now, as an email attachment. It is bogus. It is a fraud. FCC petition RM-2493 existed, but Madalyn Murray O'Hair had absolutely nothing to do with it. Zip. Zilch. Nada. But it was strangely prophetic.

In 1974, Jeremy Lansman and Lorenzo Milam asked the FCC to prevent religious organizations from obtaining licenses to operate broadcasting channels reserved for education and to place a freeze on new licenses to religious-oriented stations while it considered whether existing license-holders were providing diverse programming. Barbara Mikkelson writes, "The intent of the infamous RM-2493 was to ensure channels reserved for educational purposes ended up being used for education and not be taken up by religious groups looking to use them for a different purpose."

The petition was defeated in August, 1975. The FCC wrote, at that time: "As a government agency, the Commission is enjoined by the First Amendment to observe a stance of neutrality toward religion, acting neither to promote nor inhibit religion."

That was then.

This is now. In a ruling (FCC 99-393) issued Dec. 29, 1999, the FCC said programs that are "primarily devoted to religious exhortation, proselytizing, or statements of personally-held religious views and beliefs" do not qualify as general educational programming. Preaching does not serve the general public, the FCC said, and too much preaching may cause a station which is licensed as a noncommercial, educational television station to lose its license.

Some clergy talks which spill over the tops of modern pulpits should not be called preaching, and may actually be harmful to our health (spiritual and otherwise). Many such communications do not, in fact, serve the general public, and only serve the speaker's personal agenda. That observation not withstanding – and we are free to walk out or change the channel – whatever happened to the FCC's vaunted "neutrality toward religion?"

FCC 99-393 was not a unanimous decision. Two commissioners called the decision – which declares that the broadcast of a funeral of a national leader may be educational but the average church service is not – "unacceptable content regulation." Nevertheless, the ruling stands.

It should be noted that there are two types of licenses which the FCC regulates – commercial and noncommercial-educational. Cornerstone TeleVision in Pittsburgh was attempting to move its license from the former to the latter when their application was opposed by the Pennsylvania Alliance for Progressive Action. The Alliance argued, successfully, that Cornerstone's programming did not "meet the educational needs of the entire community."

Brandt Gustavson, president of the National Religious Broadcasters said, "The [ruling] contains a disquieting implication that the government may restrict certain strains of religious speech – disfavoring more passionate and emotional expressions of faith – while not constraining others that are more ‘intellectual' and drained of human emotion."

No pretense of neutrality towards religion was made as the Commission circumvented normal procedure, bypassing "public comment." This step eliminated any public debate and deprived other religious broadcasters from offering testimony. FCC Chairman William Kennard denies that FCC 99-393 singles out religious broadcasters, when in fact, the ruling is an obvious bias against religious programming generally and evangelical Christian programming specifically.

Representative Mike Oxley (R-OH) isn't buying Mr. Kennard's explanation. He has drafted legislation which is designed to overturn the FCC's ruling. In the last quarter century, more than 35 million pieces of mail were sent to the Federal Communications Commission in an attempt to overturn the bogus Madalyn Murray O'Hair petition. If evangelical Christians can get that worked up over a hoax, can we mount equal enthusiasm against the real thing?


Published in The Augusta Chronicle 1/22/2000

Copyright 2000 by David Sisler. All Rights Reserved.

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