Fans’ passion turns against NFL over ‘anti-church’ policy

INDIANAPOLIS (BP)--Football fans are up in arms over a National Football League policy that allows bars to host Super Bowl parties but essentially prevents churches from doing so, with some fans saying it once again shows why the NFL is often referred to as the "No Fun League."

The policy prevents large groups from watching the game on anything larger than a 55-inch screen -- which is too small for gatherings numbering in the hundreds. It also prohibits the Super Bowl from being shown in connection "with events that promote a message" -- which, of course, is a major reason most churches host such parties in the first place.

The policy applies to "mass out-of-home viewing," which includes churches.

Mike Johnson, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, told Baptist Press Feb. 1 a lawsuit against the NFL was possible, if a church is willing to take on the league. The league's policy prohibiting promotion of the Christian message at large gatherings is blatantly unconstitutional, Johnson added. Another religious liberty legal organization, the Rutherford Institute, also sent out a press release saying it would be willing to defend churches.

The policy -- which the NFL says is permissible under federal copyright law -- came to light when the NFL pressured Fall Creek Baptist Church in Indianapolis into canceling its Super Bowl party. The church had planned on using a projector and a 12-foot screen. An Indianapolis Star story about the NFL’s pressure on the church resulted in more than 300 messages posted online -- nearly all of them negative toward the NFL.

Thousands of churches across the nation now must decide whether to continue with their own Super Bowl party plans.

The Indianapolis Star published an editorial Feb. 2 saying the league "deserves a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct."

"Sports bars ... according to the league, are exempt from the TV-screen and cover charge restrictions," the editorial recounted. "Presumably, the league also wouldn't object if the well-lubricated guy on the stool next to you stood up at halftime to talk about how football changed his life.

"It was bad enough when NFL teams began holding cities hostage in demanding new stadiums. Now the league wants to dictate to churches the content of their own halftime shows. The NFL should be sent to the end of the bench for this fumble."

A Louisville Courier-Journal editorial also criticized the policy.

"[T]he league gives the idea that it’s sense of fair play and responsibility is to drive crowds from family-friendly church fellowship halls to the boozy confines of sports bars," the Courier-Journal editorial read. "Well, maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise. The beer industry does buy an awful lot of professional football commercials. But the NFL would have generated a lot more goodwill for its sports if it had followed the practice of its best referees: no harm, no foul."

Bars and other establishments that regularly show sporting events are allowed to show the Super Bowl, according to NFL policy. But even with that legal explanation, fans disagree, with some of them calling the NFL greedy and money-hungry.

"This is a disgrace and a major black eye for the NFL," one reader wrote on the Indianapolis Star website. "My former church had a youth group event that attracted 200-300 kids to watch the game together -- it was a great fellowship opportunity and it allowed the removal of potentially offensive material from the broadcast(go ahead -- call it censorship -- but the kids didn't see the infamous wardrobe malfunction). What does the NFL have to lose by allowing these gatherings? ... Shocking that as always the decision making process comes down to dollars."

Another reader asked incredulously, "A bar can show the game and make money, but a church can't show it for free?"

The NFL contacted Fall Creek pastor John Newland, objecting to the use of the 12-foot screen as well as the church's plans to promote the Gospel.

"[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."

Stephen Davis, executive director of the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana, told Baptist Press that Newland had handled the situation "with integrity, respect and discretion."

"We are investigating how our 440 Southern Baptist churches across Indiana can utilize the Super Bowl event in the future without violating NFL rules," Davis said. "As always, we strive to be responsible citizens, respecting the governing rules and authorities. We applaud the Fall Creek Baptist Church and others all over the United States who desire to support one of our nation's greatest sporting events by providing an atmosphere where children and youth can be together in a wholesome atmosphere. Where better to be than at church, where their friends can be invited for a positive Christian influence?"

Rutherford Institute President John W. Whitehead said attorneys for his organization sent a letter to NFL officials condemning the league's effort to stop church parties.

"Surely the NFL can find something better to do than pick on small churches wanting to gather together and cheer on their Super Bowl teams," he said in a statement. "These churches have a constitutional right to assemble their congregants, and it shouldn’t matter whether these people are gathering to protest the war, pray for the nation or watch a football game. If the NFL has no objection to alcohol-laden viewing parties at sports bars, it makes no sense that they would object to football fans gathering at more wholesome family-oriented events to support their teams."

Asked about the uproar Feb. 2, Indianapolis Coach Tony Dungy said, “My prayer is that we could continue for the next couple of days and we would not have any negative incidents like this. We are all looking for the best Super Bowl that has ever been played, and that is what we’re focusing on right now.”

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


With reporting by Art Stricklin.

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