Published June 16, 2009
PBS board members, who for 25 years have turned a blind eye to religious programming at some of their member stations' religious programing, have decided to enforce a rule banning the broadcasts -- a move that spells the beginning of the end for religious shows on public television.
Six PBS stations currently broadcast "sectarian" programs produced by local religious groups, including the morning "Mass for Shut-Ins," which is popular among elderly and ailing Catholics who cannot attend the daily service.
Under the terms of a decision reached by the PBS board Tuesday, those stations can retain their current shows. And all stations can air programs and documentaries that cover sacred topics -- even a newsworthy service, like a papal Mass.
But no new religious shows can be offered, and none of the 350 other stations may air any purely spiritual content, a move some groups say is a quiet means of phasing out religion from their airwaves.
"PBS' goal is to not have religious programming on PBS affiliates of what we call 'pure' religious (content)" such as Masses or devotional readings, said Susan Briggs, director of Communications for the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington.
PBS now will begin enforcing its rule -- on the books since 1985, but never rigorously enforced -- that all stations provide non-commercial, non-partisan and non-sectarian content. That means no ads, no political advocacy -- and, after Tuesday, no new religious transmissions.
Early fallout from the board meeting came even before its decision was reached. A PBS affiliate in D.C., Howard University's WHUT, decided to cancel the weekly Mass it had aired for 13 years by the end of July to avoid violating membership criteria.
But most of the member stations that air sectarian shows expressed relief Tuesday following the much-anticipated vote by the board.
"We're very satisfied with the outcome because it's going to allow the viewers of New Orleans and the many shut-ins and the home-bound that we serve to continue to receive the daily Mass, which is very vital to them," said Ron Yager, general manager of WLAE, the station that serves the city.
Federal law does not bar showing the services on public television, but PBS worries that the broadcasts have the appearance of an official endorsement from the network.
Allowing such programming to air "would cause the public's trust in PBS to erode, along with the value of the brand," argued its Stations Services Committee, according to a report in the Current.
The committee, which is made up of representatives from local networks, reviewed PBS' by-laws for the past 18 months to help move it into the digital era, and it authored the compromise embraced by the board, a PBS spokeswoman told FOXNews.com.
But the decision is not being welcomed by critics, who say that funding the stations and allowing them to broadcast devotional services amounts to paying for evangelism.
"There is some tax funding involved in public television, and that does make this shade into a church-and-state issue, because in general, we don't use tax dollars to promote sectarian programs," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
"What creates problems is when you have taxpayers directly or indirectly subsidizing evangelism," he said in an interview ahead of the board hearing.
Religious groups say the programs provide a community service and reflect the makeup and interests of the cities that offer them, and that they are enjoyed by people of different religious persuasions, and even of no persuasion at all.
"This is community-based, locally produced programming that fills a community need," said Gibbs, the spokeswoman for the Washington Archdiocese.
Wick Rowland, president and CEO of KBDI in Denver, a station that has aired a weekly Mass for about a decade, agreed.
"KBDI is a very eclectic television station with a huge diversity of programming with all sorts of political and social opinions," Rowland told FOXNews.com. "No one would mistake us for Catholic television station."
But some stations are actually owned are operated by religious groups that hold their sectarian programming sacred, such as KBYU in Utah, which is run by Brigham Young University and airs Mormon devotionals.
An underlying tension surrounding the decision was whether such channels would have been forced to split from PBS had the ruling been different.
They, too, are expressing relief at a crisis averted.
KBYU's managing director said he was "pleased" by the decision from the board of directors, which allowed his station to remain affiliated with PBS.
"KBYU has been a PBS member station for nearly 40 years, and we regard it as a tremendous honor to be able to continue to support our local audiences with both national PBS content ... as well as with locally produced content reflective of the values and mission of Brigham Young University," said KBYU director Derek Marquis in a statement.
As of Tuesday the only casualty of PBS's reconsideration of its programming is the Catholic Church in Washington, which has agreed to pay $60,000 to air its Mass for Shut-Ins on another network.
"PBS is respecting that there is a history of programming," Gibbs, the spokeswoman for the Archdiocese, said of the decision. "It's unfortunate it's not going to continue for us."