Case Overview, FCC Licenses for Religious Broadcasters

This document provides background information and summarizes the debate over granting FCC licenses to religious broadcasters. The links to the left will lead you to public documents that we have found.



          In 1999 the Federal Communications Commission ruled on an application for an educational TV license from Cornerstone TeleVision, a religious broadcasting company that had asked permission to buy an educational station in Pittsburgh. The key issue was whether Cornerstone qualified for an educational license, like that held by the Public Broadcasting System station it was trying to purchase. Educational licenses are much less expensive than commercial licenses, so Cornerstone had a significant financial interest in the outcome. For the FCC the issue was whether religious broadcasting truly constituted educational programming. Its initial decision was that any station holding an educational license had to devote at least half of its programming to educational, instructional, or cultural shows. Religious shows would not count as "educational" so broadcasters like Cornerstone would have to limit religious programming at its stations to less than 50 percent of all broadcast time.

          The FCC's decision ignited a firestorm of criticism from Christian broadcasters and conservative family values groups. "This issue churned up the waters like nothing else I've seen in 20 years," said a lobbyist for one conservative group. Republicans in Congress complained, too, and the FCC beat a hasty retreat and rescinded the new regulations a month after they were first published. Conservatives were still not mollified and Republicans in the House introduced legislation that would make religious broadcasting acceptable content for an educational license. Now it was the liberals' turn to do a not-so-slow burn. They believed the line between church and state was being crossed. Massachusetts Democrat Edward Markey said if the bill became law, it would be the "most significant change in public television in history."



          There was strong interest group advocacy on both sides of this issue. The conservative effort was led by the National Religious Broadcasters, the American Family Association, the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council, and Concerned Women for America. They worked with Representatives Charles Pickering (R-MS) and Billy Tauzin (R-LA) in the House of Representatives. The initial business deal in Pittsburgh, between Cornerstone and Paxson Communications, was championed by Senator John McCain (R-AZ). McCain was later criticized when it was revealed that he had accepted $16,000 in campaign contributions from those with a connection to Paxson Communications.

          The leading advocacy group on the liberal side was Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting. The small organization grew out of an effort in Pittsburgh to stop the initial sale. People for the American Way was also active in an effort to defeat the legislation and provided some of the resources that Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting lacked. Perhaps surprisingly, the trade group for public television stations was uninvolved. One liberal lobbyist said the organization was asked to join the coalition working against the bill but told him that "it's not our thing. [Apparently] their 'thing' is to get Congress to deliver the money to the public stations."




          Those pushing the Tauzin-Pickering bill believed that the FCC's initial ruling was discrimination and reflected bigotry toward Christian broadcasters. "This is a foundation principle for us," said one conservative lobbyist. They argued that they needed legislation to protect Christian broadcasters. Secondarily, they argued that religious broadcasting is often misconstrued. "A lot of what religious broadcasters do has educational content," said one backer of the bill.


          Liberals had just the opposite take on the bill. They believed that, if enacted, the bill would legitimate favoritism for religious broadcasters: they would get a discounted rate for their licenses even though many of them sold commercial time to help pay for their stations. They also argued that many of these broadcasters showed programs with bigoted content. Jerry Starr, the Executive Director for Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting, told the National Journal that "Cornerstone talk-show host Bob Enyart regularly assails homosexuals. Other programs have attacked Catholics, Hindus, Mormons, and other religions." Liberals also cited the traditional separation of church and state.


          The major impediments to the passage of the legislation was getting through the Senate, which didn't seem as interested in it as the House was. Also, there was every expectation that President Clinton would veto the legislation if it managed to pass both houses. Senate Majority leader Trent Lott (R-MS) made one effort to bring the bill up but a Democrat put a hold on it and the bill never emerged again the 106th Congress. The fact that the FCC had withdrawn the original regulation that set off the conflict worked against the legislation in the Senate. There wasn't a real urgency to make the legislation a priority and there were many other bills senators were trying to bring forward at the end of the session.



          The initial round was fought at the Federal Communications Commission, which struggled with the Cornerstone application. After its initial decision, the focus shifted to the Congress and remained there even after the FCC reversed itself. Christian broadcasters and conservative family values groups beat the drum at the grassroots to try to mobilize public opinion in favor of the legislation. The White House did not appear to become directly involved in the conflict.


Lobbying Activities and Tactics

          Traditional face-to-face lobbying was the method of choice for both sides. For example, lobbyists for Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting and People for the American Way spoke to many Senate staffers trying to find a senator who would put a hold on the legislation. The liberal groups also documented the religious and ethnic bigotry that could be found on existing Cornerstone stations. As noted above, conservatives used religious broadcasts to inform their followers of the FCC action and the congressional response.