The Gospel according to Sid Roth didn't go over too well at the Federal Communications Commission last week.
Roth, who is an evangelist heading up an organization that Jews can still believe in Christ, was the guest speaker before a regular meeting of the FCC Devotional Group during Friday's lunch hour.
Although the meeting was billed as a "Good Friday observance," several angry FCC employees have claimed that it was, in fact, a proselytizing effort by Roth, who passed out literature and envelopes soliciting offerings.
The controversy has raised again the question of separation of Church and State. It has forced the FCC to cancel future meetings of the devotional group until it receives a ruling on what kind of meetings can be held on government property.
Meanwhile, the General Counsel of the General Services Administration, which has jurisdiction over federal office space, said any meeting of a sectarian group in federal offices is clearly forbidden by the law.
According to Jack Mulligan of the GSA, a section of the Federal Property Management Regulations forbids the kind of meeting Roth apparently ran.
Subpart 101-20.701 of those regulations includes the following passage: "Meeting places may not be used for . . . meetings or activities having a partisan political, sectarian, or similar nature or purpose."
After the Roth meeting was described to him, Mulligan said "it appears that it is a violation of the rule," but added that it was up to the FCC to police the space occupied by it.
Mulligan went further, saying that prayer meetings in general would appear to be banned under that regulation. "I saw the notice of one at the State Department last Friday, but it was too late to stop it," he said.
A similar bible study group met at the Justice Department, also on Friday. But because no group had signed for the room, officials at the Justice Department were unaware of the sponsor.
The problem at the FCC began about two weeks ago, when notices of Roth's impending visit were posted. On March 17 Alvin Reiner, an FCC staffer, wrote a memo to the Executive Director of the agency, Don Lichtwardt, protesting the scheduled appearance.
In that memo, obtained by The Washington Post, Reiner said that he did not generally object to "the use of government facilities by various groups for the purpose of conducting religious services or prayer meetings," but called the planned Roth talk "a thinly veiled attempt to proselytize under the guise of a Good Friday observance."
"There is an issue of an even more serious nature," the Reiner memo continued. "I question the legality of using government facilities and property for the purpose of religious proselytizing and to obtain free advertising for books and radio programs."
When contacted by the Post, Reiner confirmed that he had sent the memo, but would say little more. He noted that he had attended the eventual meeting, and said, "It was a frightening experience for me." He is Jewish.
Despite Reiner's appeal, and a subsequent meeting between some FCC staffers and members of the General Counsel's office there, the meeting was allowed to go on. One concession was made, however, when the scheduled meeting place was transferred from the main commission meeting room to a training room in the FCC annex.
Yesterday, FCC attorney Steve Fadem - who had heard a tape recording of the meeting - wrote a letter to Chairman Charles D. Ferris complaining about the gathering.
"I strongly believe that the use of government facilities by a religious speaker to proselytize and impugn the beliefs of another faith clearly runs counter to Constitutional safeguards whereby a wall of separation was erected by the Founding Fathers to stand between church and state," said the letter, a copy of which was also obtained by the Post.
Fadem says the issue was further aggravated "because notice was given to appropriate commission officers of the expected nature of M-Roth's talk, yet nothing was apparently done to protect the rights of those to whom Roth's biases were aimed."
Fadem described Roth as "a leader of an evangelical group which actively seeks to convert members of the Jewish faith to Christianity."
FCC Executive Director Lichtwardt was away for a week and unavailable for comment. His assistant, Alan McKie, called the incident "regretable," and said "it will not happen again."
"We were unaware of the controversial nature of this particular speaker and have taken steps to prevent a reoccurrence," he said.
He admitted that his office had heard the speaker prior to the actual talk, but felt it was too late to be called off, since it had already been scheduled.
FCC General Counsel Robert Bruce said "We're obviously concerned about the reaction of some of our employees. It's a very emotional issue."
He said that the FCC has 'allowed employees to use the meeting rooms for non-sectarian meetings. But as a result of Friday's meeting we have made inquiries of the Department of Justice seeking advice on what guidelines have applied at other agencies."
"This was not proselytizing in any way or form," said Sid Roth, in a telephone interview from the offices of his group, "The Messianic Vision," in Washington.
He admitted leaving literature and mail-in envelopes on each chair for the 50-plus listeners, but said "that is my standard method anywhere I go. I leave our newsletter with inserts."
"I gave a message," he said. "It didn't matter if you were Jewish or Gentile. I was talking about a personal relationship with God. I urged everyone to serve God."
Roth said he did receive "two unsolicited contributions" at the meeting.