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NFL: Sports bars in, churches out

INDIANAPOLIS (BP)–The National Football League has told a Southern Baptist church in Indianapolis it will run afoul of federal copyright law if it hosts a Super Bowl party this Sunday, even though the league makes a major exception for such large-scale viewings at sports bars.

Fall Creek Baptist Church in Indianapolis was one of probably thousands of churches across the nation scheduled to host a party this Sunday evening as part of an outreach to the congregation and the community.

But now, the church — whose hometown Colts will play the Chicago Bears — has canceled the event under pressure from the NFL, which says large-group events can show the Super Bowl on a TV no larger than 55 inches wide. The church had planned on showing the game on a projector that would have resulted in a 12-foot screen. A 55-inch screen would be too small for the hundreds that were planning on attending. NFL policy also prohibits the use of multiple televisions. The league even had a problem with the church showing a video highlighting the Christian testimonies of Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy and Chicago coach Lovie Smith. NFL rules prohibit broadcast of the game at events that “promote a message.”

Falls Creek senior pastor John Newland says the NFL technically has the right to do what it did, although he disagrees with both the law and its application. In an e-mail, he told the NFL it was wrong to prevent a Super Bowl party at a family friendly event such as a church, while allowing Super Bowl viewings at bars that serve alcohol that “destroys the lives of millions of people every year in our country.”

“The churches of this great country are often the very people reaching out to help those whose lives are ruined by alcohol and yet, we are told that we cannot host an alcohol-free party to watch the Super Bowl, while bars across America are free to do so, using the exact same technology we had planned to use and more,” he wrote.

Newland also pointed out that, unlike churches, bars hosting Super Bowl parties stand to gain financially from the sales of drinks and food.

“[W]e only seek to provide a family oriented atmosphere for people of all ages to come and enjoy the game, without the distractions of alcohol and other things that are inappropriate for young children,” the pastor wrote.

Newland told Baptist Press the church won’t file any legal action, although it will ask its legislators to change the law.

“Between 40 and 50 percent of our church on any given Sunday is under the age of 18,” Newland told BP. “Our kids don’t have anyplace to go watch it in a party-type atmosphere, unless it’s a very small party. We wanted to provide a place for our kids and our teenagers to watch the game. Plus, we wanted to inspire them by the stories of faith — especially Dungy and Smith.”

Mike Johnson, an attorney with the religious liberty group Alliance Defense Fund, said the NFL has a double standard.

“It certainly smacks of anti-religious discrimination to me,” he told BP. “Federal copyright law includes the right to control how a broadcast is displayed. There’s no dispute about that. But it certainly seems that the way that they are enforcing their policies here is discriminatory. The idea that they would allow exceptions for bars and restaurants but not for churches and other family friendly venues is just outrageous.”

The NFL first sent a letter dated Jan. 25 via overnight mail to the church, saying the congregation’s use of the “Super Bowl” name and its plan on charging admission to show the game “on a big screen” violated the NFL’s copyright rights. Newland responded to the NFL by saying the church would drop the admission — which was to help pay for food — and would not use the “Super Bowl” name. The NFL then replied saying the church still would be in violation of copyright law because it was using the large screen.

“From everyone I’ve talked to, [the NFL] can say exactly what they’ve said to us,” Newland said. “Really and truly, if we’re going to be law-abiding citizens — and the Scripture teaches us that we need to obey the laws of the land — then we have no choice but to comply. If this was a matter of civil disobedience, where they were challenging us to not obey God, then that’s a whole different matter. But this doesn’t even come close to that.”

Newland added, “[W]e are going to try to get our legislators to get the law changed.”

The league said the church — if it held a Super Bowl party conforming with the law — would not be able to promote the church or Christianity. The church had planned on showing a video highlighting the Christian testimonies of Dungy and Smith.

“[Y]ou admit … that part of the benefit of using our broadcast to host such an event is that it may allow you to bring your message of Christian values to non-Congregants; i.e., you will be using the event to promote your church and its values,” NFL attorney Rachel Margolies wrote Newland. “While this may be a noble message, we are consistent in refusing the use of our game broadcasts in connection with events that promote a message, no matter the content.”

Bars and other businesses that operate as “24/7 365 days-per-year sports viewing establishments” are the only exception to the group-viewing rule, provided they don’t charge admission, she said.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello explained the copyright rule, telling the Indianapolis Star, “We have contracts with our [TV] networks to provide free over-the-air television for people at home. The network economics are based on television ratings and at-home viewing. Out-of-home viewing is not measured by Nielsen.”

Nielsen rates TV shows through the use of television meters placed in a “cross-section of households.” During sweeps months, the organization also has the sample group use diaries. Unless church members and guests were among that select group, the church’s planned showing of the Super Bowl would not affect ratings.

“I don’t lend too much credence to [the NFL’s] argument [regarding Nielsen],” the ADF’s Johnson said, “because if that were the case then they should also be going to all the sports bars and restaurants and other venues and imposing the same restriction. It seems to me a bit of a disingenuous argument.”

Johnson said litigation is possible — if a church is willing to participate — although he believes it may be unnecessary.

“This is one of those things that may not even require litigation,” he said. “It seems to me that when people hear about this, it may just be one of these things that public outcry can solve. This may be one of those kinds of grassroots efforts where we shine a little light on the situation, and it achieves the desired result.”

Fans can contact the NFL’s New York office at 212-450-2000. The commissioner is Roger Goodell.

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  • Michael Foust