FCC affirms neutral stance on religious broadcasts as rumor on a ban persists

The Federal Communications Commission has received more than 15 million pieces of mail in the last nine years on a hearing that never existed: Docket No. 2493, a fictitious ban on religious broadcasting.

Despite repeated FCC denials of a ban over nearly a decade, the millions of protests, letters, telegrams, and petitions continue to pile up at the commission in hundreds of brown cardboard boxes and green plastic bags. Currently they are running at 130,000 a month, down from the 5,000 to 6,000 daily in 1975, when the issue was in full bloom.

Docket No. 2493 identified a 1974 petition to the FCC by two broadcast consultants, Jeremy D. Lansman and Lorenzo W. Milam of Los Gatos, Calif., asking that no new religious broadcasting licenses be granted until inquiries were made into the stations' broadcast practices.

Their petition for a hearing was denied by the FCC on Aug. 1, 1975, when the FCC pointed out that the First Amendment ''required a stance of neutrality toward religion, acting neither to promote nor inhibit religion.''

In its wake a rumor sprang up that atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair had spearheaded such a request for a ban on religious broadcasting and was exerting pressure on the FCC to issue such a ban. This rumor was denied by Mrs. O'Hair at the time, a denial corroborated by the FCC. But it persists today.

According to Albert Baxter, chief of the complaints investigations department , much of the mail is in the form of petitions referring to Mrs. O'Hair, asking for 100,000 signatures and contributions to oppose the mythical ''ban.''

Mr. Baxter reiterates that there never has been and never will be a ban on religious broadcasting because of the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech and also because of the ''no censorship'' provisions of the Communications Act under which the FCC operates.

He points to the current flow of mail, more than 1.5 million pieces in the last year, and suggests ''someone's making money on it'' but declines to speculate on who it is or why. ''It's one of those never-die things,'' Mr. Baxter says.

In recent years the mail has come in geographical waves from specific sections of the country, he indicates; the current wave is from the Eastern United States.

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