Crossover commentator

Civil Rights | Detroit anchorman Frank Turner makes waves by attempting a career in evangelistic broadcasting

Issue: "Meltdown," April 22, 2006

Frank Turner says there's a reason why he calls himself "America's First Evangelical Anchorman." Two years ago, it wasn't uncommon to tune into Detroit's Channel 7 news (WXYZ) 5 p.m. broadcast and see Mr. Turner deliver a gospel-filled commentary at the end of the broadcast. He says WXYZ not only allowed but encouraged him to talk about Jesus during a secular broadcast in the nation's No. 11 television market.

So when officials at Channel 7 denied him the opportunity to host a daily two-hour radio broadcast on a small Christian radio station, he said he was confused. In fact, management officials at WXYZ, he said, met his idea to become a full-time evangelist as well as full-time news anchor with "eye rolling and deep sighing."

On March 17, Mr. Turner filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), saying that Channel 7 had violated his rights under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which forbids religious discrimination. The popular anchorman says the station's refusal to allow him to host a 10 a.m. to noon weekday evangelistic program on a local Christian radio station, WEXL, violates the law that requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for religious practice.

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One thing stands in Mr. Turner's way: His contract with WXYZ contains an exclusivity agreement (an industry standard) that prevents him from lending his broadcast talents to anyone else.

It's not the first time Mr. Turner has gotten crossways with WXYZ management. In 1998, the station fired him after he was exposed as a cocaine and pornography addict. Within two years, Channel 7 hired him back onto the 5 p.m. broadcast after what Mr. Turner calls a profound religious conversion. Since then, the anchorman has become an increasingly popular Christian speaker and evangelist in Detroit. Through his website, he sells Christian-themed messages on CDs. He told his story of brokenness and repentance on TV shows like the 700 Club and many radio broadcasts. "This was never a subject of rancor or conflict," Mr. Turner told WORLD. "The station not only allowed, but encouraged and benefited from my public witness."

Indeed, Mr. Turner remained one of Detroit's most popular broadcasters despite-or perhaps because of-his public profession of faith. WXYZ general manager Grace Gilchrist declined to comment, but she has been quoted in the Detroit News saying, "We spend millions of dollars a year promoting our on-air talent and we want to have them working exclusively for Channel 7."

James Sonne, an employment law expert at Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, said employers are required to make exceptions for employees on religious grounds so long as employers don't suffer an undue hardship. In the past that has meant everything from requiring employers to let religious employees observe holy days to preventing them from enforcing dress code policies that forbid turbans worn for religious reasons. "The thumb is on the scale for religious practice," Mr. Sonne said. "But it's not heavily on the scale. It's more like a pinky on the scale."

Mr. Sonne says Mr. Turner can succeed in his legal case if Channel 7 cannot demonstrate that allowing Mr. Turner to broadcast for a small radio station would cause a financial hardship. Kingsley Browne, a law professor at Wayne State University, thinks WXYZ will have an easy time proving their case: "Anything more than trivial costs could be a hardship. Employers pay money for exclusive contracts for a reason. . . . I think he's going to have a real hard time prevailing-it's a definite longshot."

Even if the EEOC doesn't take the case, Mr. Turner says he'll pursue the matter, signaling he's willing to file a federal lawsuit. "If I don't have this exception, not only can I not minister in a daily radio broadcast, I cannot perform any of my duties as an evangelist or as a Bible teacher," said Mr. Turner, whose contract is up this year. "I've already made up my mind that I can be an evangelist and an anchorman. I can be an evangelist without being an anchorman. But I cannot be an anchorman without being an evangelist."


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