BLOGGERMichael Kessler is Associate Director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, a Visiting Assistant Professor of Government, and an Adjunct Professor...
Ethical values, based on religion and reason, shape the kinds of law and policy citizens desire to govern their community. At the same time, the law shapes how we become moral persons and the kinds of communities we hope to build. Law, morality, and religion are intertwined. Yet ideologically-charged policy debates, the grittiness of political compromise, and the impersonal rule of law often don't correlate with--and can even damage--our deepest religious and moral commitments. We talk about law achieving a just order, but we too often struggle to develop notions of justice that rise beyond "efficiency" measured by markets and the "balancing" of preferences. Just Law and Religion rejects the cynic's reduction of law and politics to an amoral arena of clashing interests. It recognizes the crucial role of law and policy in achieving social stability, but focuses on how fundamental rights and moral values both shape and are shaped by contemporary legal and political institutions. Just Law and Religion will take the "moral temperature" of current events and issues across a vast array of political institutions, law, and culture in order to comprehend the ethical stakes, and the promise and perils, of our common life. Just Law and Religion asserts that law and politics can only be âjustâ when they concede there is more to human value and meaning than legal and political institutions can achieve.
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AT THE CENTER
RELATED RESOURCES ON CHURCH-STATE
PBS: Public Broadcasting is Secular
June 18, 2009
This means stations which try to broadcast new programs could lose their PBS affiliation. A few will not have to cancel current programs, so WHUT in Washington D.C. can continue showing "Mass for Shut-Ins," a long-running collaboration with the Archdiocese of Washington that has broadcast a weekly Mass since 1996. Yet in anticipation of the vote, the Archdiocese arranged to move the show to WDCW, a commercial channel, for a significant increase in broadcasting fees.
PBS policy, adopted in 1985, requires member stations to provide a "nonsectarian, nonpolitical, noncommercial educational program service." According to Current newspaper, these "Three Nons" are "descriptors that help define public TV's identity -- noncommercial, nonpolitical and nonsectarian. Federal law and the FCC restrict two of the "nons." The FCC is mandated to ban commercial content and limit political content on noncom stations. But PBS is on its own to define what the third "non" means to public TV."
The Station Services Committee investigating the issue was concerned that providing a forum for sectarian religious broadcasting would undercut the mission of PBS by too closely aligning with a particular religious organization. PBS "places a high value on presenting diverse perspectives, as opposed to rigidly adhering to any single political or religious point of view." Privileging the religious programming of a few groups "would cause the public's trust in PBS to erode, along with the value of the brand." The PBS Board hoped to avoid any appearance of endorsing religious views, particularly while receiving Federal tax revenues to pay for some of their operating expenses (through the Congressionally-created Corporation for Public Broadcasting).
On the one hand, I sympathize with the Board's concerns, and recognize the potential validity of some of the arguments made by supporters of the decision, like Rev. Barry Lynn, one of the nation's foremost advocates of church-state separation. Lynn's reasons are fairly straightforward: "There's no reason for PBS stations to show proselytizing or evangelistic programming, particularly with the explosion of television channels available in recent years. With PBS paid for partly with taxpayer dollars, it's perfectly defensible constitutionally to forbid religious programming. And with plenty of other broadcast opportunities for religious programming, PBS is by no means required to provide them a forum."
Lynn asserts two justifications. First, there are numerous possible forums for religious groups to transmit their message. They don't need to use the public, quasi-governmental stations. Second, since the stations receive tax money they operate as quasi-governmental agencies. As such, they should not permit religious broadcasting lest they violate Constitutional prohibitions on endorsing particular sectarian viewpoints.
The first reason doesn't hold much weight if we remember that the "explosion" of channels is largely a phenomenon of cable and satellite television. In many areas, apart from the cost-prohibitive commercial stations, the only other channels that broadcast a signal that your grandma can receive on old-fashioned rabbit ears antennae are PBS affiliates.
But this leads to the next concern. As a public station partially funded by tax dollars, is it constitutionally permissible (even required?) to allow sectarian religious programming.
This is complicated by the "quasi" governmental status of Public Broadcasting. As Justice Douglas argued in his concurrence in CBS v. Democratic National Committee 412 U.S. 94 (1973), the Corporation "is a creature of Congress whose management is in the hands of a Board named by the President and approved by the Senate" and appears to be "a federal agency engaged in operating a 'press' as that word is used in the First Amendment." If PBS is a purely government agency, then the government could not readily discriminate among particular viewpoints.
But the Court has not treated PBS as any regular government agency. Instead, PBS is treated as a broadcast station managed by editors. It is not open access TV. Editors do not allow every program on the air. PBS is not a "designated public forum" in which all persons must be allowed to speak without discriminating among viewpoints.
Further the Court has also ruled, in the context of election campaign debates, that PBS is not a public forum like others, but operates more like a journalistic enterprise. In Arkansas Educational Television Commission v. Forbes 523 U.S. 666 (1998), the Court held that a public television station who excluded a third-party candidate from a campaign debate did not violate the First Amendment because such "judgments...should be left to the exercise of journalistic discretion."
So PBS is not really a government agency in the normal sense, and it is not necessarily bound by strict requirements to maintain viewpoint neutrality. Indeed, editors and program executives have a broad discretion to determine what programs are shown. Any decision to maintain content neutrality and strive to be nonsectarian is more a product of the Board's self-constraint, not so much a constitutional requirement. As such, the Board's decision to limit the "world" they explore is their own choice. They will allow the "objective" review of religion to continue--Religion and Ethics Newsweekly is news and analysis about religion, not the practice of religion. But the local Catholics can't use 30 minutes at 7 a.m. to reach shut-ins.
I wonder if this cuts off a part of the world that we should hope flourishes, even if we don't participate in it. It's not my religion that will be fostered by the programming. And my desired programs still get the best time slots. And I can easily recognize that PBS is not endorsing particular views when they merely provide access to the airwaves for some groups to broadcast shows at odd hours. Rather, PBS is merely accommodating the local communities' needs through educating and facilitating the vast range of cultural expressions of local citizens, including religious expressions. Is Mass for Shut-Ins much different from a country-gospel singer crooning on Austin City Limits?
The danger of course is that every group will then want access. And PBS could become as irrelevant and loony as a local access station--a scary prospect. They have scarce resources of airtime and must be responsible to limit programming to the best explorations of the world around us.
There's no easy answer to this. The PBS Board was trying to be neutral--a worthy goal. I just wonder if they could have found a way to remain neutral while still letting Grandma watch Mass on Sunday.