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Originally published Sunday, May 17, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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PBS board to vote on sectarian programs

PBS stations are debating the limits of one of public television's basic commandments: Thou shalt not broadcast religious programming.

The Washington Post

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WASHINGTON — PBS stations are debating the limits of one of public television's basic commandments: Thou shalt not broadcast religious programming.

The discussion, some station managers fear, could lead to a ban on broadcasts of local church services and other faith-oriented programs that have appeared on public stations for decades despite the prohibition.

The Public Broadcasting Service's board is to vote next month on a committee's recommendation to strip the affiliation of any station that carries "sectarian" content. Losing its PBS relationship would mean a station could no longer broadcast programs that the service distributes, from "Sesame Street" to "Frontline."

PBS, based in Arlington, Va., did not have an official tally of how many of its 356 member stations carry broadcasts of religious services, but the number is believed to be small.

Under bylaws enacted in 1985, PBS stations are required to present programs that are noncommercial, nonpartisan and nonsectarian. The rules were put in place to ensure balance and fairness among PBS-affiliated stations, which rely on government funding, private-sector grants and sponsorships and contributions from viewers.

But the definition of "nonsectarian" programming has always been loosely interpreted, and the rule has never been strictly enforced, PBS officials said.

News and discussion programs about religion or religious history would be unaffected, said Jennifer Lawson, who chairs the panel. But the current proposal would deem "religious services of faith-based groups" as inappropriate, she said.

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