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January 15, 2020

On December 30, 2020 the Federal Communications Commission issued new guidelines stipulating that religious groups which hold a certain class of broadcasting license (educational, nonprofit) had to devote at least half of their programming to “educational” content.

Although the ruling affected only a small number of stations, religious groups and some elected officials reacted quickly. They charged that the government was trying to dictate what type of expression was to be considered “educational” and still religious. The FCC decision stipulated that programming “primarily devoted to religious exhortation, proselytizing, or statements of personally held religious views and beliefs” would not count toward the required new standards. The Commission did approve programs “analyzing the role of religion in connection with historical or current events ... (or) exploring the connection between religious belief and physical and mental health,” as well as content “examining the apparent dichotomy between science, technology and established religious tenets...”

In an unusual move, American Atheists issued a press statement critical of the new guidelines. American Atheists President Ellen Johnson charged that the FCC was enacting “bad law” that was vague and invited legal challenged, adding that it came precariously close to putting the government in the position of interfering with free speech.

At the same time, Johnson criticized the many religious groups speaking out against the FCC decision for their selective indignation. She charged that it was a “sham” for these organizations to “suddenly unfurl the banner of ‘free speech’ when so many of these same groups wish to violate the free speech rights of others by legislating restrictions on television content, the internet, even what magazines may be displayed in supermarket racks...” Even so, the FCC regulations may well violate the separation of church and state -- and ultimately threaten some forms of free speech.

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