The Public Broadcasting Service has decided to enforce a long standing rule that bans religious programming on its stations. The board decided to allow the few stations that already have religious shows to continue airing them, but no new shows will be allowed.
Since 1985, PBS has had a rule that said all shows must be "noncommercial, nonpartisan and nonsectarian." The last one was rarely enforced, and some stations did air "sectarian" programming. But after a lengthy review, PBS will make sure stations adhere to the rules.
Only six of the 350 PBS stations across the country air religious shows. That includes three which run "Mass for Shut-Ins," which is popular among elderly Catholics. PBS spokeswoman Jan McNamara said they will still be able to see Mass:
"The board has basically voted to insure that the religious programming that stations currently provide and that communities have come to rely on are able to stay on air."
But that news comes too late for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. Fearing its Mass would be dropped by PBS station WHUT, it made arrangements to move the show to a commercial station, at a cost of $60,000 a year to the diocese. Spokeswoman Susan Gibbs said:
"I think we were good for WHUT because we brought a committed and dedicated audience to their channel. It would have been nice for us to continue being there... PBS is respecting that there is a history of programming. It's unfortunate it's not going to continue for us."
But it will continue in Denver. Jeannette DeMelo is the spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Denver:
"Aside from it being the church's role to provide for the vulnerable and the weak, I think society in general seeks to do that. That's why we're grateful that PBS has allowed this to continue to happen because I really do think it's a service for the broader public."
Government watchdog groups are hailing the decision, including Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State:
"There is some tax funding involved in public television, and that does make this shade into a church-and-state issue, because in general, we don't use tax dollars to promote sectarian programs. What creates problems is when you have taxpayers directly or indirectly subsidizing evangelism."
Stations can still air programs and documentaries that deal with religious topics. And they can also cover news events that are religious in nature, such as a Papal Mass.