Reportedly denied eligibility for a federal equipment grant because it carries one church service a week, Fordham University’s WFUV-FM has sued the Commerce Department for relief. Both the university and the Commerce Department’s Public Telecommunications Facilities Program (PTFP) apparently use First Amendment arguments to justify their cases. The Jesuit university says Commerce is violating its First Amendment right of free speech as well as the Communications Act, which it says prohibits government control of program content. And PTFP’s overseer, new Assistant Secretary of Commerce Larry Irving, reportedly believes that awarding equipment grants to stations with religious programming would undermine the church/state separation required by the First Amendment. Irving’s spokesman Larry Williams said the agency is not commenting on the matter because of the pending lawsuit.
At WFUV-FM, a public radio station licensed to Fordham University in the Bronx, the 25-year-old studio soundboard needs to be replaced, and the tower and other transmission facilities could use a major overhaul as well. General Manager Ralph Jennings says he’d like to get a grant from the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program (PTFP) to defray at least half of the estimated cost of $2.5 million to $3 million, but that he hasn’t bothered applying because PTFP, a Commerce Department grant program, has told him informally that his station is ineligible for federal funds. The reason is an hour-long Roman Catholic Mass that WFUV has been broadcasting from Fordham’s campus chapel every Sunday for the last 42 years. Jennings estimates that the program has an audience of between 5,000 and 10,000 listeners, many of whom are shut-ins or others who can’t attend regular services. Richard Harland, senior program officer at the PTFP, says it’s simply a matter of following the regulations that govern the distribution of federal funds.