PBS OKs Religious Broadcasts; Bans New 'Sectarian' Shows

PBS's board of directors decided Tuesday to bar membership from stations that carry sectarian programming with the exception of those already airing such material.

Though PBS stations have been required to carry only nonsectarian programs since 1985, a small portion (around six) of the 356 PBS member stations carry broadcasts of religious services, as the definition of "nonsectarian" was loosely interpreted and the rule never strictly enforced.

Tuesday's decision came as a relief to stations such as WLAE in New Orleans and WHUT in Washington, which air local Sunday Mass.

But it came as a disappointment to critics such as Barry Lynn, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who believes PBS should have been tougher in its decision.

"There's no reason for PBS stations to show proselytizing or evangelistic programming, particularly with the explosion of television channels available in recent years," Lynn commented Wednesday. "With PBS paid for partly with taxpayer dollars, it's perfectly defensible constitutionally to forbid religious programming."

Under the terms of the decision reached by the PBS board Tuesday, stations that broadcast "sectarian" programs produced by local religious groups can retain their current shows. Furthermore, all stations can air programs and documentaries that cover religious topics, such as "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly" or the geo-history documentary "Walking the Bible," which are acceptably nonsectarian.

Aside from those programs, however, no other faith-based programs will be allowed airtime and any station that adds such programs will lose their association with PBS.

In enforcing its 1985 policy, PBS will only allow its stations to provide "nonsectarian, nonpolitical, noncommercial educational" content.