The myth of the broadcasting ban; O’Hair not responsible for the petition that shocked millions

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page A11

Some might say the true legacy of Madalyn Murray O’Hair is her Supreme Court battle that ended mandatory school prayer. But for employees of the Federal Communications Commission, it’s Petition 2493.

It’s one of the great urban legends of our time: that Ms. O’Hair was petitioning the FCC to ban all religious broadcasting on radio and television. Since 1975, when the rumor started, religious people have been sending letters to the FCC asking them to reject Ms. O’Hair’s efforts.

The problem is: Ms. O’Hair never tried to ban religious broadcasting.

By 1991, the FCC had received more than 25 million pieces of mail opposing the “petition.” At that point, the commission stopped counting, although it estimates it still receives 1 million letters a year.

The origin of Petition 2493 has nothing to do with Ms. O’Hair. In December, 1974, two attorneys unaffiliated with Ms. O’Hair filed a petition asking for regulations on religious organizations taking up a large percentage of reserved educational frequencies on the FM dial and on TV. Their goal was to make it easier for minority owners to gain access to the frequencies.

The petition was assigned number 2493 and was rejected in August, 1975. End of story, right?

Somehow, the petition became associated with Ms. O’Hair, who was then still regularly featured in the media for her efforts to keep religion out of government activities. Churches across the religious spectrum asked their members to send letters to Washington. At one point, 13 FCC employees did nothing but open mail and answer phone calls regarding Petition 2493.

Now, the campaign has moved into the world of e-mail, as well. As one recent e-mail “counterpetition” goes:

“Ms. O’Hare [sic] is also campaigning to remove all CHRISTMAS PROGRAMS, CHRISTMAS SONGS AND CHRISTMAS CAROLS from Public Schools…Christians must unite on this! Please do not take this lightly; we did once and lost prayer in schools and in offices across the nation!!!”

Ms. O’Hair may be dead, but the rumor that she is attempting to lobby the FCC from the grave lives on.