The Senate Republican leadership -- in a last minute, pre-election payoff to political supporters in the Religious Right -- is prepared to pass legislation granting special licensing rights to religious broadcasters.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) tried to force the "Noncommercial Broadcasting Freedom of Expression Act" (H.R. 4201) through the Senate last Friday, but failed. Congressional observers believe it could come to the Senate floor for a vote as early as this week as an amendment to a larger bill.
The legislation changes federal communications law to give religious broadcasters virtually unlimited access to noncommercial educational radio and television stations that have traditionally been used by universities and nonprofit educational organizations.
Under the measure, the Federal Communications Commission cannot regulate religious programming at educational stations and cannot require that a portion of time be set aside for educational material.
Moreover, the bill exempts religious broadcasters from requirements concerning proof of educational programming. As a result, the FCC would be required to automatically grant religious programming "educational" status.
Aggressive backroom lobbying in support of this bill is being driven by the National Religious Broadcasters, a trade association that includes Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, D. James Kennedy, James Dobson and other powerful broadcasters in the Religious Right.
"It's outrageous that Congress is prepared to replace Bert and Ernie with Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "This scheme grants special rights to religious broadcasters because they're religious.
"Unfortunately, this bill undermines the whole concept of educational broadcasting by allowing religious networks to promote their beliefs under the guise of 'educational programming,'" Lynn added. "If this bill becomes law, religious broadcasters would be free to buy up stations and replace educational programming that benefits an entire community with sectarian broadcasts and evangelism."
The House of Representatives has already approved this legislation. On June 20, the House passed H.R. 4201 by a 264-159 vote.
AU's Lynn noted that the measure removing requirements of actual educational programming makes this legislation particularly controversial.
"Any religious group, no matter how extreme or controversial, will immediately qualify for a noncommercial educational license under this bill," Lynn observed. "A TV preacher could run a telethon all day, every day, claim that it's educational programming, and federal law would let him get away with it if this bill passes."
The House began consideration of the measure after controversy erupted last December over proposed FCC criteria for educational programming. The agency ruled that at least half of a noncommercial station's broadcasts must be educational and that preaching and worship services would not count as educational. The FCC reversed itself a month later after the National Religious Broadcasters, Religious Right leaders and their allies in Congress expressed bitter opposition.
Congress has been noticeably inactive on many of the Religious Right's top concerns during this session. With that in mind, many believe that this legislation is moving after some behind-the-scenes dealing just weeks before Election Day.
"I know we're getting close to the election, but this kind of religious pork is ridiculous," Lynn concluded. "Existing FCC regulations protect educational programming for everyone. For Congress to strip these guidelines to curry political support with the Religious Right is shameful."
Americans United has joined in a broad coalition of groups opposing the legislation including Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting, the National PTA and the Minority Media & Telecommunications Council.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization represents 60,000 members and allied houses of worship in all 50 states.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.