No sanctuary for Super Bowl flock

Times Staff Writer

They were expecting a big crowd this Sunday at Farmland Friends Church in rural Indiana.

The sanctuary would be decked in blue and white streamers, the card tables groaning with sloppy-Joe fixings and bowls of chips. Best of all, the pews would be packed with scores of the faithful: men, women and children, shoulder to shoulder, hooting at a jumbo screen as their beloved Indianapolis Colts coasted -- God willing -- to victory over the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI.

It was to have been a wholesome evening of fellowship and football.

And it would have been illegal.

Farmland Friends on Friday joined churches nationwide in abruptly canceling its Super Bowl party for fear of violating a federal copyright law that prohibits public venues from showing NFL games on big-screen TVs.

Sports bars are specifically exempted. Churches are not.

The law has been widely ignored for years. Churches routinely draw hundreds of fans to annual Super Bowl parties; some denominations openly use the events as tools for evangelism. The Christian magazine Sports Spectrum even markets a Super Bowl party kit for churches. This year, however, a celebration sponsored by Falls Creek Baptist Church in Indianapolis caught the attention of a National Football League attorney, Rachel L. Margolies.


She ordered the church to cancel its party and remove the trademarked Super Bowl name from its website. The Indianapolis Star picked up the story Thursday -- and by Friday, pastors across Indiana and beyond were scrambling to yank down their Super Bowl banners and give away their trays of burgers.

“We want to obey the laws of the land,” said Jennifer Lee, the office manager at Farmland Friends Church in Farmland, Ind., about 110 miles northwest of Indianapolis. “But, golly! We were going to have fun.”

The intent of the law, which dates to the 1960s, is to protect the NFL’s television ratings by preventing large crowds from gathering to watch games in public places -- where their viewing habits aren’t measured by the Nielsen ratings. (The ratings only measure viewership at home.) Sports bars and other businesses that rely on televised sports to draw patrons are exempt.

Under NFL guidelines -- and federal law -- churches, schools and other public venues can hold football-viewing parties only if they use a single, living-room-size TV, no bigger than 55 inches. When they project the game onto 12-foot screens or set up banks of TVs, they cross the line, according to NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy.

Jumbo screens “have the potential to draw thousands of people, and if we had that going on across the country, it would eventually erode the television ratings,” McCarthy said.

That’s why the NFL denied a recent request from the Chicago Park District to broadcast the game at Soldier Field. It’s why the league blocked the New England Aquarium from showing the AFC Championship game on its Imax screen in 2004. And it’s why the league has in the past sent investigators to prowl casinos in Detroit, Las Vegas and even Biloxi, Miss., looking for suspiciously large screens.

NFL investigators will also be out this year, but “we’re not ... barging into churches, by any means,” McCarthy said. “We’re just trying to make churches aware of what the policy is.”

Once aware, many pastors felt that -- as Christians -- they had no choice but to cancel their parties. “It’s a shame we have to disappoint so many people. We don’t agree with it. But it is the rule,” said Dian Foreman, youth ministry director at Northside New Era Missionary Baptist Church in Indianapolis, which counts Colts head coach Tony Dungy among its congregation.

Instead of cheering Dungy in a loud, proud crowd of 300, Foreman plans to watch the game at home with a few friends. (“I have a 52-inch TV,” she joked. “I’m within the guidelines.”)

This Super Bowl is especially meaningful not only for Northside New Era Missionary, but for churches nationwide. Both Dungy and Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith are deeply faithful Christians; both have credited their successful seasons to the Lord. “We’re giving all the glory to God,” Colts owner Jim Irsay said last month.

Some pastors planned to make the most of the Christian subtext to the game by using their Super Bowl parties to show videos of Dungy and Smith testifying about their faith. Others had prepared brief halftime sermons about character. “It’s used as a vehicle to open up conversations about faith,” said Joseph Price, a professor of religious studies at Whittier College who teaches about sports and faith.

Prohibiting church parties in the name of higher ratings is “ludicrous,” Price said. “The NFL doesn’t make enough money on the Super Bowl already? Excuse me.”

As a matter of law, the NFL “has a pretty good case,” said Marshall Leaffer, an Indiana University law professor who specializes in intellectual property. “But I’m a little puzzled as to why they’re doing this, because it gives them a lot of bad press.”

It’s unclear how many churches scrapped their parties, but McCarthy said late Friday that the NFL had been fielding calls from concerned pastors all day. The Indianapolis Star got word of cancellations from congregations as far away as Houston.

That development pleased Bill Johnson, who crusades against immorality -- such as risque halftime shows -- as executive director of the American Decency Assn. Much as he likes football, the idea of a big-screen TV in a sanctuary appalls him. The commercials are crass enough, Johnson said -- what if there’s another “wardrobe malfunction” like the slip that exposed Janet Jackson’s breast during the 2004 halftime show?

“Here’s the football game and then, next thing you know, there’s a commercial break and you’ve got some sort of illicit scene on the screen,” Johnson said. “As Christians ... we’re to keep ourselves from that which is not honoring to God.”

Out at Farmland Friends, Lee said she saw no harm in gathering to cheer the Colts as a church family. In fact, she was so angry at the party’s cancellation that she returned a $20 Super Bowl T-shirt. “I’m not paying for anything from the NFL,” she said.

If the Colts win, though, she may have to break down and buy another shirt. The church bought paper goods for 150, not to mention tons of blue and white balloons. And if they’re not going to be used Sunday, well, Lee’s hoping for a championship party in the sanctuary. “Or,” she asked, voice dripping with sarcasm, “is that against the law?”