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Hoax on religion ban still plagues FCC

Wednesday, February 24, 1999

By Judy Packer-Tursman, Post-Gazette Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - Don't ask Federal Communications Commission officials about "Petition No. 2493" or you might detect the slightest note of resignation in their tired voices.

The agency has gotten a steady flow of public inquiries about the "religious broadcasting ban" for the past 24 years, and the trickle becomes a flood right before Easter and Christmas. It is a hoax.

The only difference is that, in recent years, people have been sending electronic mail to the FCC as well as writing letters and phoning the agency. Their messages are typified by a Valentine's Day note sent by a woman from Sierra Vista, Ariz., who wrote to "protest any human effort to remove from radio or television any programs designed to show faith in God or to remove Christmas songs, Christmas programs and Christmas carols from public airwaves, schools or office buildings."

She's not alone. By March 1991, the FCC had tracked more than 25 million pieces of mail on this hoax of unknown origin. It was counting thousands of inquiries a month before it stopped counting.

Those who've sent similar correspondence lately will get the same reply: A rumor has been circulating since 1975 that atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair asked the FCC to consider limiting or banning religious programming, and that the agency granted a hearing to discuss it.

FCC officials stress that none of it is true. For years they've tried to explain, to no avail, that no federal law or regulation gives them authority to bar radio and TV stations from presenting religious programs. Broadcasters, not the FCC or any other governmental entity, are responsible for programming.

Sharon Jenkins, who tracks "2493" messages as the FCC's chief of public inquiries, recalls appearing on the Christian Broadcasting Network's 700 Club in the mid-1980s to attack the rumor. She still replies to 10 to 15 e-mail or phone inquiries a day on the subject.

She explained that two attorneys filed a petition for rulemaking with the FCC in December 1974, asking among other things that the agency disqualify religiously affiliated institutions and groups from eligibility to operate on broadcasting channels reserved for noncommercial educational use.

Their petition - assigned No. 2493 - was denied in August 1975 because, the FCC said, the First Amendment requires it to stay neutral, "acting neither to promote nor to inhibit religion." The rumor has co-opted the same number for the false petition.

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