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Congressman will seek to nullify FCC's limits on 'QEX religious content

Thursday, January 13, 2000

By Caroline Abels and Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

U.S. Rep. Mike Oxley, R-Ohio, plans to file legislation that would nullify new Federal Communications Commission guidelines that state certain religious programs do not qualify as educational.

Oxley is reacting to a portion of the FCC's recent decision approving the transfer of the non-commercial educational license of WQEX (Channel 16) in Pittsburgh to Cornerstone TeleVision, a religious broadcaster.

The guidelines, which the FCC characterized as a clarification of its existing regulations, state that religious exhortation, proselytizing or statements of personal religious views do not constitute educational programming.

The guidelines also indicate that church services generally do not qualify as educational.

Because the FCC also said more than half of the programming on an educational station must serve an educational purpose, the guidelines could limit the amount of certain religious programming by broadcasters with an educational license.

It is estimated that there are about 15 religious stations with educational licenses around the country.

"Previously, traditional religious programming had been considered educational," said Peggy Peterson, a spokeswoman for Oxley.

"This is a departure. The FCC can call it a clarification, but in fact they are changing policy. They are putting conditions on a license and attempting to regulate content."

The FCC's decision allows Cornerstone to sell its commercial license for WPCB (Channel 40) to Paxson Communications for $35 million, which would be split between Cornerstone and WQED Pittsburgh, the parent company of WQEX.

Cornerstone president Oleen Eagle was in meetings yesterday and could not be reached for comment.

Oxley and three other congressmen -- Rep. Steve Largent, R-Okla.; Rep. Clifford Stearns, R-Fla.; and Rep. Chip Pickering, R-Miss. -- outlined their criticism of the new guidelines in letters last week to FCC Chairman William Kennard and Vice President Al Gore.

Yesterday, Kennard argued in a written response that the vast majority of religious broadcasters operate on commercial stations and are not subject to the new FCC guidelines for educational licenses.

Kennard also noted that stations affected by the guidelines can still carry religious programming as long as it does not constitute more than 50 percent of the station's total programming.

Kennard's comments drew a quick retort from the congressmen, who said Kennard failed to address the key issue: the FCC's new guidelines.

"The commission's guidance is designed to force religious broadcasters seeking to hold a non-commercial television license to cut back on traditional religious programming ... and replace it with FCC-approved educational content," the congressmen said in a letter to Kennard. "This amounts to censorship of religious expression by other means."

They went on to say that if the FCC wanted to implement what the congressmen called "a substantial change in Commission policy," it should have followed its usual procedures, which allow for public input.

Oxley's legislation would require the FCC to get public input if it chooses to revisit this issue.

To Kennard's argument that relatively few religious broadcasters use educational licenses, Peterson said: "You're trampling the free speech rights of just a small group of people. That makes it OK?"

Oxley will introduce his legislation when Congress reconvenes Jan. 24. It would not affect the Pittsburgh license transfer, which Oxley supports.

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