WASHINGTON -- A decision by federal regulators about when religious programming counts as educational has touched off a storm among the nation's religious broadcasters, who complain the action amounts to an infringement on what they can air.
The Federal Communications Commission, in deciding a license transfer last month between a public television affiliate and a religious broadcast station in Pittsburgh, determined that not all programming dealing with religious matters qualifies as educational.
The distinction is important, because noncommercial TV broadcasters are eligible for special educational licenses that entitle them to reserve channels for their sole use. In its ruling, the FCC defined more clearly what standards must be met to fall into the category of educational programming.
Specifically, the commission said broadcasters must devote 50 percent of their regularly scheduled air time to educational programs.
The commission also defined what content would count as educational.
Programming "primarily devoted to religious exhortation, proselytizing or statements of personally held religious views and beliefs generally would not qualify as 'general educational' programming," the FCC ruled.
And in a footnote, it said church services also normally would not qualify as "general educational" programming.
The ruling made two exceptions: If the service was part of a historic event, such as the funeral of a national leader, or its purpose was to serve the educational or cultural needs of a community.
The decision has drawn fire from religious broadcasters and lawmakers, who argue that such distinctions are arbitrary. The National Religious Broadcasters sent a letter to 1,200 of their members decrying the ruling.
"The order contains a disquieting implication that the government may restrict certain strains of religious speech -- disfavoring more passionate and emotional expressions of faith -- while not constraining others that are more 'intellectual' and drained of human emotion," wrote Brandt Gustavson, the group's president.
The group knows of 15 religious broadcasters holding noncommercial licenses but believes there are as many as 90 who would have to meet the standards outlined by the FCC or possibly lose their licenses.
In addition, public broadcasting stations that air religious programming, a number of which hold noncommercial licenses, will have to scrutinize whether they meet the new FCC criteria, said Karl Stoll, spokesman for the National Religious Broadcasters.
"The net effect I think will be less preaching of the gospel, less programming of church services," he said.
According to the FCC, about 373 television stations hold educational reserve licenses nationwide. The commission estimates that about 20 of these are religious broadcasters.
The bulk of religious broadcasters operate on the commercial band and are not covered by the decision.
Nonetheless, the FCC action has prompted accusations by lawmakers, including members of the House Commerce telecommunications subcommittee, that the commission is trying to control the broadcasters' religious expression.
"The commission has no business -- no business whatsoever -- singling out religious programming for special scrutiny. The policy you have implemented amounts to an unconstitutional restriction on religious speech. This type of content regulation and suppression is utterly unacceptable," Republican Reps. Michael Oxley of Ohio, Steve Largent of Oklahoma, Chip Pickering of Mississippi and Cliff Stearns of Florida wrote in a letter to FCC Chairman Bill Kennard.
The controversy was ignited after religious broadcaster Cornerstone Television applied for the reserve license held by a PBS affiliate in Pittsburgh. In the course of reviewing the license swap, the commission tightened the definition of educational programming.
Commissioners Harold Furchtgott-Roth and Michael Powell dissented from issuing the new guidelines, saying that it could open a "Pandora's Box of problems that will create confusion and litigation."