Family Group Files Suit Against New FCC Rules

By Justin Torres | July 7, 2008 | 8:26 PM EDT

( - A major family group that operates a national radio network is suing the Federal Communications Commission, claiming that new guidelines on non-commercial radio licenses discriminate against religious broadcasters.

The new guidelines, issued in April of this year, will affect 618 back-logged, non-commercial educational (NCE) licensing applications as well as any new applications filed in the future. They are being challenged by the American Family Association>, which operates more than 150 radio stations across the nation.

Pat Vaughn, an attorney with the American Family Association's Center for Law and Policy, said that the new guidelines "are on the surface fair, but in fact will result in publicly-funded entities, such as NPR, winning every licensing conflict before the FCC right now and in the future."

The guidelines set up a point system the FCC> will use to judge which applicant receives a spot on non-commercial radio bands, which are close to full in most regions.

The new guidelines award applicants two points for diversity of content, an attempt to limit the number of stations offering the same content.

However, the guidelines also offer an off-setting two points for being part of a "statewide educational network," a standard that NPR stations centered in educational institutions, such as community colleges, can generally meet, but private Christian religious schools (excepting some Roman Catholic dioceses) can rarely meet, according to Vaughn.

More central to the AFA's suit are the "attribution standards," that award points to broadcasters that are locally owned and controlled. The FCC specifically delineates NPR stations as "local" despite the fact that much of their funding and content is provided by the national Corporation for Public Broadcasting. National networks such as AFA radio, under these standards, would be considered national and not be awarded points.

"They set these standards up in such a way that the people [the FCC] wants to win will always win," said Vaughn. "Religious broadcasting on NCE licenses will continue, but only individual churches or groups would be able to operate stations, not religious networks. That's weak competition against NPR."

A spokesperson for the FCC declined to comment, citing agency rules against speaking about pending lawsuits.

This is the second time this year that the FCC's handling of non-commercial educational licenses has come under attack.

In January, was the first to report changes to guidelines governing religious content on NCE stations,> which touched off a firestorm of criticism from religious broadcasters.

Those guidelines were reversed and Congress passed the Noncommercial Broadcasting Freedom of Expression Act last month.

Karl Stoll, spokesperson for National Religious Broadcasters>, said that the new guidelines reflected "the attitudes of the commission toward religious broadcasters."

"As we saw in the [previous case], the attitude is that religious broadcasters don't have a place on noncommercial bands," said Stoll. "We believe that religious broadcasters ought to have a place at the table."

The FCC has been ordered to respond to the AFA's suit by Monday, July 24. AFA has until the following Friday to respond.