Rumors cloud religious issues debate. FCC and O'Hair

(From Madison Co. Record, Dec 8, 1994)
by Winston Bryant, Attorney General

[Little Rock] - The first amendment to the United States Constitution declares: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;--"

That statement is the people's guarantee that each person is free to worship his or her own God in his or her own personal manner. The statement is also at the heart of the "prayer in public schools" debate that is currently reengaging the Congress. One side says that because of this statement, it is illegal to force students to recite a standard prayer. To counter that argument, the other side says that [coerced] prayer should be made legal by amending the constitution.

As that debate goes forward, the Federal Communications Commission has re-entered the religious fray by denouncing a rumor that has long circulated concerning the nation's best known atheist.

According to the FCC, a rumor has circulated since 1975 that Madalyn Murray O'Hair, a widely known, self proclaimed atheist has proposed that the FCC consider limiting or banning religious broadcasting. This rumor is NOT true, the FCC states.

It has also been circulated that the FCC has granted Ms. O'Hair a hearing to discuss her proposal. That is also only a rumor and is equally false, the FCC declares.

The FCC says there is no federal law or regulation that gives the FCC the authority to prohibit radio and television stations from presenting religious programs. Actually, the Federal Communications Act of 1934, which created the Commission, specifically prohibits the FCC from censoring broadcast material and interfering with freedom of speech in broadcasting in any manner.

The FCC cannot direct any broadcaster to present or withhold any announcements or programs on religion and the FCC cannot act as an arbitrator on insights or accuracy of such material. Broadcasters, not the FCC, nor any governmental agency, have the sole responsibility for selecting programming that is aired by their stations.

Since 1975 to the present time, the FCC has received and responded to more than 25 million inquiries about the Madalyn Murray O'Hair rumor, the Commission reports. "In every case," the FCC says, "efforts have been made to advise the public of the falsehood of the rumors and what the true facts of the federal law really are."

The laws and the FCC's policies on broadcasting of religious programming have appeared in numerous publications, including newspapers, religious magazines, TV Guide, TIME magazine, as well as many others and have been discussed on television talk shows and before religious group meetings. Still the rumors persist and still the FCC is forced to deny them.

Comments and inquiries about this article are always welcome. Please send correspondence to Winston Bryant, Office of the Attorney General, 200 Tower Building, 323 Center Street, Little Rock, AR 72201. The telephone number is (501) 682-2007.

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