PBS Weighs Separation Of Church & Stations

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 16, 2009

PBS stations are debating the limits of one of public television's basic commandments: Thou shalt not broadcast religious programming. The discussion, some station managers fear, could lead to a ban on broadcasts of local church services and other faith-oriented programs that have appeared on public stations for decades despite the prohibition.

The Public Broadcasting Service's board is to vote next month on a committee's recommendation to strip the affiliation of any station that carries "sectarian" content. Losing its PBS relationship would mean that a station could no longer broadcast programs that the service distributes, from "Sesame Street" to "Frontline."

The proposal is already having local ramifications. In anticipation of the vote next month, WHUT, the public station operated by Howard University in the District, has notified the Archdiocese of Washington that it will cancel "Mass for Shut-Ins," a Diocese-produced weekly program, if the PBS board adopts a strict interpretation. "Mass for Shut-Ins" has been carried on WHUT since 1996, and continuously on a Washington TV station for nearly 60 years.

"It's kind of a shock to us," said Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese. "They've been great partners of ours for a long time. . . . The Mass is a very local programming that provides a community service. You'd think public television would be about engaging the community."

PBS, which is based in Crystal City, did not have an official tally of how many of its 356 member stations carry broadcasts of religious services, but the number is believed to be small.

Under bylaws enacted in 1985, PBS stations are required to present programs that are noncommercial, nonpartisan and nonsectarian. The rules were put in place to ensure balance and fairness among PBS-affiliated stations, which rely on government funding, private-sector grants and sponsorships, and contributions from viewers.

But the definition of "nonsectarian" programming has always been loosely interpreted, and the rule has never been strictly enforced, according to PBS officials. The issue came up for debate late last year as PBS stations began overhauling their membership rules for the transition to digital television.

News and discussion programs about religion or religious history, such as the recently aired documentary "Jerusalem: Center of the World," have never been at issue and would be unaffected by a proposal endorsed recently by a committee of station managers, said Jennifer Lawson, who chairs the panel and also serves as general manager of WHUT.

But the current proposal would deem "religious services of faith-based groups" as inappropriate, she said. "The intent is for [PBS stations] to show editorial independence," Lawson said.

A strict ban would leave stations such as WLAE in New Orleans with a dilemma: Stop airing its daily telecast of Catholic Mass or end its affiliation with PBS. The station, which is partly owned by a Catholic lay group, has been presenting the morning Mass since it went on the air in 1984.

"We don't want to lose our association with PBS, because they provide a lot of fine programs," said Ron Yager, the station's vice president and general manager. "But at the same time, we need to serve our community. We've built an identity around this. People know us for this."

Yager said his station has never received a complaint about the Mass telecast in the 25 years it has aired. "I'm really not totally sure of their reasoning for doing this," he said.

Lawson said her station has never had a complaint about its Mass broadcasts, either. But the program has sparked interest from other religious groups that would like the station to broadcast their church or mosque services, she said. "We just have to tell them that ['Mass for Shut-Ins'] is a legacy program, and that we don't have the wherewithal or inclination to do any more," she said.

Like WLAE, some public TV stations are licensed to religious organizations that tailor locally produced shows to their beliefs.

KBYU in Provo, Utah, for example, is operated by Brigham Young University, which in turn is affiliated with the Mormon Church. The station airs much of the usual PBS fare -- "Arthur," "Barney," "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" -- but also broadcasts two hours a day of "BYU Devotional," which includes lectures from leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. KMBH, based in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and licensed to an affiliate of the Diocese of Brownsville, carries Sunday Mass broadcasts, Bible study in Spanish, and a family issues program hosted by a priest. In 2007, the station drew national attention when it declined to air "Hand of God," a critically praised "Frontline" documentary about clergy sexual abuse.

Jan McNamara, a PBS spokeswoman, declined specific comment, saying only, "We're still gathering feedback from our members to see where they stand."

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