The guiding principles for PBS programming are noncommercial, nonpartisan and nonsectarian – and that may cause a problem for some affiliates that carry even a small amount of religious programming, no matter how noble their intentions.
The problem is not with programs that take a comparative, historical or otherwise studious look at religion. It’s when the show itself is denominational. The question revolves around PBS’s government ties and the separation of church and state.
Although the number of stations implicated are few – most don’t go into this kind of religious territory – the Washington Post found an example in its own backyard. Howard University’s WHUT has been airing “Mass for Shut-ins” since 1996 (the show’s history stretches back much farther, to about 60 years ago).
Stations airing such programming are at risk of losing all of PBS’s other programming.
The separation clause, as far as PBS is concerned, dates back to 1985, and has been loosely enforced, but the switch to digital caused all by-laws to be reexamined and caused the current controversy to surface.
RBR/TVBR observation: We think having the plank included in the bylaws, but loosely enforced, is a sensible nod to the principle of localism. As long as the overtly religious programming is kept to a minimum, and is clearly non-commercial, provided only as a service to a segment of the local population, we think it’s no different than a public school renting Sunday space to a ministry still in the process of erecting its own church.