WASHINGTON (AP) -- The House voted Tuesday to protect religious broadcasters by prohibiting the Federal Communications Commission from regulating the content of speech aired by noncommercial educational radio and television stations.
The bill, passed 264-159, was in reaction to an FCC statement, made last December and rescinded in January, that broadcasters seeking licenses for free, specially reserved educational TV channels should devote half their air time to educational programs.
The FCC statement, which drew the ire of some religious groups and members of Congress, also disqualified religious proselytizing and church services as general educational programming.
''We are simply trying to prevent and prohibit the FCC from going down a dangerous path of regulating religious speech,'' said Rep. Charles ''Chip'' Pickering, R-Miss.
Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., said the bill confirmed the House's commitment to religious rights a day after the Supreme Court's decision limiting school prayer. ''The court may have banned prayer yet again, but the House has defended religion on the airwaves.''
Opponents argued that the bill undermined the purpose of educational broadcasting by opening the way for religious groups to use the public airwaves for the sole purpose of promoting their beliefs. ''There will no longer ever again be a requirement that a public TV station must serve the educational needs of a community,'' said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass.
The legislation states a nonprofit organization is eligible for a noncommercial educational license if it broadcasts material that the organization determines serves an educational, instructional, cultural or religious purpose. The FCC is barred from imposing any requirement linking licenses to, for example, the number of hours of educational programming.
Markey offered an amendment to clarify that a holder of a noncommercial educational license must provide educational programming. It was defeated, 250-174.
The FCC since 1952 has reserved television channels and radio bands for noncommercial educational programming. While most religious broadcasters operate with commercial licenses, some have obtained noncommercial permits.
Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., head of the House Commerce telecommunications panel, said religious broadcasters now have 800-1,000 noncommercial radio licenses and will soon have 23 television licenses.
The bill, which requires Senate action, is backed by the National Religious Broadcasters and the Christian Coalition. Markey said it was opposed by several major church groups and the national PTA.
On the Net: Republican summary: http://hillsource.house.gov/LegislativeDigest/Digest/Digest2000/Wk17 pt1.htm
National Religious Broadcasters: http://www.nrb.com/
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