Football fans at churches around the country are praying for a Hail Mary play in time for Sunday's Super Bowl.
Some congregations that throw parties to watch the big game and possibly convert a few nonbelievers may be in violation of National Football League policy and could face legal action. According to the league, the churches are violating NFL copyright by airing games on large-screen TV sets and by charging admission.
After reading several stories about how preachers sacked the annual event to comply with NFL rules, former Washington Redskins quarterback turned Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., fired off a letter Friday to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell asking for an exemption for churches.
"As a former player and an active church member, I have participated in several of these fellowship events. I know that they offer a safe and friendly environment for families and friends to gather and enjoy the game," Shuler wrote.
An NFL spokesman responded via email that Commissioner Goodell has been trying to reach Shuler by phone to discuss the issue but added that the league would not make exceptions for churches.
The threat of legal action has caused dozens of churches to cancel or alter their plans for Super Bowl parties this year.
Last year, Pastor John D. Newland of the Fall Creek Baptist Church in Indianapolis received a cease-and-desist letter from the league telling him that the church was in violation of league rules by charging $3 a person to watch the game and munch on snacks. He canceled the event, and this year the church is doing in-home parties combined with Sunday school classes.
"I was surprised because these events have been going on for years and years around the country," Newland told ABCNEWS.com. "Everyone knows churches were not out to make a buck but to attract people to church."
During halftime, Newland shows videos featuring football players talking about their faith and he gives a Gospel presentation "for the express purpose of how they could become a follower of Christ."
Newland contemplated legal action but decided not to pursue the matter. Yet he remains disappointed with the NFL's action, citing the fact that many African-American churches use these events to reach out to youth.
"This is a tragedy for these churches trying to reach out to more African-Americans," he says. "The NFL thinks they're invincible. Well, they're not. Nobody is invincible and anyone who thinks they are, they'll come tumbling down."
This year, a Baptist church in Alabama has teamed with the Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties group, to plot a lawsuit against the NFL.
"We think the law is outdated and vague," says John Whitehead, the institute's president. "This is a matter of constitutional law and the equal protection clause because the league exempts sports bars from their prohibition on watching games on screens larger than 55 inches."
According to sports lawyers, the league is well within its rights even if they might be annoying their fan base. At the end of each game, the league airs a disclaimer: "This telecast is copyrighted by the NFL for the private use of our audience. Any other use of this telecast or any pictures, descriptions, or accounts of the game without the NFL's consent is prohibited."