No “Amen” for House Bill

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Attention, Congressman Fred Upton: The nation’s religious broadcasters do not endorse your new bill cracking down on broadcast indecency and sex.

That bill may have passed overwhelmingly in the House, with conservative Republicans and a lot of Democrats fulminating on the evils of the industry from their political pulpit, but it didn’t pass muster with on-air ministers, whose mission includes preaching against the evils of just such speech. Asked to endorse the Upton bill, the National Religious Broadcasters, at their annual convention, said no.

Does that mean the nation’s religious broadcasters don’t want to clean up the airwaves. Hardly, but if you can’t get preachers to say “Amen” to a bill advertised as protecting children from harm, it’s a really good sign that something is fundamentally wrong—namely, the threat of putting additional content-control powers in the hands of the government.

Religious broadcasters still believe that profanity, particularly taking the Lord’s name in vain, and sexually suggestive material are too evident at times when children are around. They would like the FCC to better enforce the rules on the books and to increase those existing fines. But, no, they aren’t ready to support Upton’s supercharged indecency-enforcement legislation that they, and we, fear may be expanded tomorrow beyond today’s definitions.

In this case, their distaste for Howard Stern and his peers has been trumped by an overreaching government.

It is the sacred equivalent of the secular turnaround by some liberal Democrats on the indecency bill after they realized it was affecting PBS shows like Mystery (they sometimes swear on TV, those Brits!) and Antiques Roadshow (those Erte naked statues leave nothing to the imagination!).

We welcome everyone into the First Amendment tent.

No, there are no plans in the works for topless religious radio. But religious broadcasters fear that constitutional protections on speech could be threatened by broad new indecency-enforcement legislation. As one 40-year member of the NRB board pointed out to B&C last week, their concern is that some future administration might disagree with some religious preaching and classify it as off-limits. “While we don’t want people to take the Lord’s name in vain,” he said, “we don’t want the government to prevent us from praising it either.”

The NRB, representing 1,700 members, had already drawn up a resolution endorsing the Upton bill, which would raise fines, target performers, put licenses explicitly into jeopardy for multiple offenses (the so-called “three-strikes” provision) and call for a GAO investigation into the FCC’s indecency enforcement. “The National Religious Broadcasters strongly encourages the House of Representatives and the United States Senate to move quickly to pass this legislation,” the resolution read. But after some thoughtful debate in at least two forums during its annual convention two weeks ago, the resolution was shelved after constitutional concerns were raised.

According to NRB President Dr. Frank Wright, during the debate, several members pointed out that a content crackdown “could come back to bite us if tomorrow’s definition of indecent might include some of the thoughts of religious broadcasters.”

So religious broadcasters, noncommercial broadcasters, commercial broadcasters, children’s-TV advocates, programmers, unions and run-of-the-mill defenders of the First Amendment everywhere are concerned about government intrusion into content. Isn’t it time the legislators who represent them started reflecting that concern?

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