After questioning by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), the National Telecommunications and Information Administration has begun an internal review of its refusal of equipment grants to a North Carolina public radio station that carries 90 minutes of church programming on Sundays.
Since early this year, NTIA has been threatening to rescind a $175,000 grant to Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, N.C., for tower reconstruction at WFDD-FM, the university's NPR-member station. NTIA grants officer George White told the university in a March 21 letter that it could receive the grant only if it dropped the religious programming, according to Helms.
Helms, a friend of Wake Forest President Thomas K. Hearn, intervened April 27 with a letter to NTIA Administrator Larry Irving, questioning the decision. As long as NTIA's Public Telecommunications Facilities Program exists, Helms said, ''qualified recipients should not be discriminated against for broadcasting, once a week, a Sunday school and church service.''
NTIA this month informed the station that its grant decision was on hold and will be reviewed by the agency.
It was not clear at Current press time whether NTIA was reviewing its broader policy rejecting grant requests from other public radio stations that carry some religious programming. The issue has arisen at Fordham University's WFUV in New York City, which airs a Catholic Mass on Sundays, and Southern College's WSMC, Collegedale, Tenn., which carries a number of Seventh Day Adventist programs on Saturdays. Fordham is appealing a court decision on the issue.
NTIA staffers would not comment on specifics, origins or a timetable of the internal policy review.
Wake Forest President Hearn contacted Helms about the station's dilemma, according to Helms Press Secretary Jimmy Broughton.
Since the senator sent his letter to NTIA he has received no response from the agency and Broughton was unaware it was reviewing the policy.
Helms questioned Irving's view that PTFP grants to stations carrying religious programs violate the First Amendment's religious freedom clause.
"Inasmuch as the standard in Section 32 [of NTIA rules] prohibits grants made for 'essentially sectarian purposes,' who made the decision that broadcasting of the Sunday school and church service, amounting to 0.9 percent of WFDD's total weekly programming, makes the station essentially sectarian, and on what basis was this decision made?" the senator asked.
He noted that NTIA had given WFDD an equipment grant in 1981 and had initially approved the new tower grant last year, ''knowing full well of the religious programming.''
Helms does not support federal aid to public broadcasting and noted that Congress may discontinue PTFP.
Aftermath of tornado
WFDD collided with Irving's policy last year. In March 1994, the station applied for a PTFP grant to rebuild a 13-year-old tower damaged by a tornado. NTIA approved the grant and four months later the station sent a letter of acceptance stating that it airs some religious programming. In January, NTIA responded by denying the station the funds and requested a document supporting the station's compliance to NTIA regulations by May 8, according to WFDD Station Manager Cleve Callison. Before that deadline, however, the agency informed WFDD that it would defer all action on the grant during an internal policy review. Although the grant has been in jeopardy, WFDD is pressing ahead with tower construction.
The controversy centers on the station's airing of a 90-minute sermon from Wake Forest Baptist Church each Sunday. Callison said the broadcast is a community service that makes church services available to ''shut-ins, people such as the handicapped, the elderly, who can't make it to church.''
He said WFDD is unlikely to stop broadcasting the religious service and should not be forced to do so. "We've aired this sermon since the station was founded in 1961. One half-hour sermon does not make us a sectarian station," he said.
Furthermore, the station's mission is to reflect the cultural and community life of the university and its surroundings, Callison said. Though the Baptist-founded university has had no official ties to the church since the 1980s, the church is still part of its tradition.
Callison described WFDD as a "garden variety" public radio station that airs All Things Considered, classical music, jazz and Garrison Keillor. It is the only NPR member station in the Triad (the cities of Winston-Salem, Greensboro and High Point) and serves a population of just under 1 million.
"NTIA is too strict," said Callison. "There should be a way to air a small amount of religious programming as a community service and still receive funding. It's an unreasonable restraint on our First Amendment rights and an unusual interpretation of federal law."
NTIA attorney Susan Truax told Current that the station has not been denied funding. ''They could theoretically access the funds.'' She also objected to Callison's criticism of NTIA's strict guidelines by saying, ''NTIA is a federal agency, not the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). There is no room for sectarian programming, not even if it is a public service."
In contrast to NTIA's view, CPB, a nonprofit agency chartered by Congress to distribute federal aid to public broadcasting, views a small amount of religious programming as a public service, according to Priscilla Weck, director of station grants administration. Consequently, the issue does not threaten WFDD's CPB grant, which amounted to about 20 percent of its total $800,000 annual budget last year.
Fordham University's WFUV has been fighting the NTIA policy for years. Last summer, the station appealed NTIA's denial of a tower grant. U.S. District Judge Charles R. Richey ruled in favor of NTIA, rejecting the station's claim that the federal agency had restricted WFUV's First Amendment rights by denying it funding. Callison interpreted the ruling another way. ''It settled the question of whether an administrator of a federal program has the right to rule on the interpretation of laws."
Waiting on Virginia court case
Fordham has appealed the court decision, but the government has requested the delay of further hearings in the case until the U.S. Supreme Court decides a related case, Rosenberger vs. the University of Virginia, probably this summer. Although WFUV has agreed to the delay, General Manager Ralph Jennings believes the case is irrelevant to WFUV's situation because it involves an admittedly religious entity's right to receive public funds. In any case, NTIA's policy review may determine whether WFUV must pursue its appeal.
In the Supreme Court case, Ronald Rosenburger, a University of Virginia student who edited Wide Awake, a private magazine that presented ''the Christian perspective'' at the university, was denied funding by the state university. The Student Council, which allots income from mandatory student fees, ruled that supporting the magazine financially would mean that the university would be promoting certain religious beliefs and would allow for excessive entanglement between government and religion.
Rosenberger appealed the decision, first to the university board, later to federal courts and finally to the Supreme Court, stating that the university had denied him equal access and free expression.
''I feel like we have been discriminated against purely and simply because of our religious viewpoint,'' Rosenberger stated. The university does fund other groups whose members belong to a particular social, ethnic or religious group, such as the Jewish Law Students Association, the Muslim Student Association and Black Voices, although it prohibits using funds to promote religious or political viewpoints.
These groups, in the university's view, are cultural and are not trying to propagate any particular philosophy. John Jeffries, the university's lawyer, explained on MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour that the decision was based on ''a question of degree.''
''It's a distinction based on the weight of the activity and whether or not you would describe it as primarily religious or cultural,'' Jeffries said. He cited the example of one university-supported group, the Muslim Students Association, which toned down its publication's religious message to retain funding. Jeffries argued that the case is more about setting priorities for the allocation of scarce public funds than freedom of religion.
Although Wide Awake was denied university funding, it was given access to university facilities, such as meeting rooms. It ran out of money and folded after its fourth issue.
The question presented to the Supreme Court is whether the Constitution requires a state university to subsidize with public funds the preparation and distribution of a student publication designed to advocate a particular religious belief.
The ruling may or may not affect the rights of secular stations that air some sectarian programming, but it will define more clearly the boundaries between church and state, and where freedom of expression and religion enter into the equation.