Under pressure from religious broadcasters and conservative lawmakers, the Federal Communications Commission reversed a recent ruling yesterday that would have meant religious programming could no longer qualify as educational.
The original guidelines issued last month would have directly affected only about 20 religious programmers that have noncommercial licenses. Such licenses require devoting at least half of programming hours to "educational, instructional, or cultural needs of the community."
But the 2,000 or so religious radio and TV stations across the country vehemently protested the decision, arguing that the ruling's implications would ripple beyond those few stations and "severely stifle religious expression," as the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who has a radio show, wrote in protest.
By so specifically defining the term "educational," Falwell and others argued, the FCC was setting a dangerous precedent of aggressively regulating content and thus could shut down certain stations on political whim.
In their 4 to 1 vote yesterday, FCC commissioners admitted that they had created "less certainty rather than more."
"It has opened a Pandora's box of problems," said Commissioner Michael K. Powell. "In today's decision we put the lid back on the box."
The guidelines stemmed from a Pittsburgh case in which a PBS station wanted to swap one of its noncommercial stations with a religious broadcaster. In reviewing what is usually a routine station swap, the FCC issued a general guideline that programs "primarily devoted to religious exhortation, proselytizing, or statements of personally held religious views and beliefs" did not count as educational.
In the month since the decision, the National Religious Broadcasters and thousands of mostly Christian listeners lobbied the FCC to reverse the ruling. Rep. Michael G. Oxley (R-Ohio) introduced a bill to nullify the FCC ruling. As of yesterday, the bill had 79 co-sponsors, including all members of Republican leadership.
Yesterday Oxley praised the reversal, although he credited it to election year politicking.
"This is a victory for free speech and for religious programming," said Oxley. "Al Gore's people saw this as a huge liability politically and they wanted to lance that boil."