Feb. 2, 2008 — -- 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."
Attorney Jerry Reisman says, "The NFL has the copyright, they own the rights to the Super Bowl. The NFL has sold certain rights to the networks to broadcast the game, and now you get somebody who says, 'I'm going to show the game and charge admission.' You don't have a right to do that."
In 2006, the NFL pursued the Zoo Club in Detroit when porn stars Jenna Jameson and Savanna Samson hosted a $1,000-a-ticket Super Bowl party that featured a lingerie show.
Yet Reisman thinks that the league went too far by going after churches. "Somebody at the league went overboard in sending that letter out," he says. "That's adverse publicity for the NFL. But they don't care about a few fans who get annoyed."
A league spokesman insists that they have no objection to churches holding viewing parties for the Super Bowl, as long as they follow the rules. He explained that the league's contracts with television networks play a role, since the networks are concerned about large viewing parties skewing down their Nielsen ratings.
"This is not about churches," says Brian McCarthy, NFL spokesman. "We've never investigated a church or gone into a church with a ruler to see how big the TVs are. We've been telling churches and other groups for years what they can and cannot do when it comes to such parties. You shouldn't have to pay for something that's free."
McCarthy says that the league has also warned movie theaters about showing Green Bay Packers games and persuaded the Chicago Bears not to air last year's Super Bowl on the Jumbotron at Soldier Field.
Major League football seems to have had its share of publicity headaches in recent months. The basic-cable NFL Network has caused friction among fans and cable networks by grabbing a few games that used to be shown for free. Last month, the network caved in to public pressure and allowed the Patriots-Giants season finale game to be aired on CBS and NBC.
And this week the league shot down KFC's plan to donate $260,000 to charity in the name of any player who celebrates a Super Bowl touchdown with a chicken dance, calling the fast-food chain's plan "ambush marketing." Players who take part could reportedly face fines or suspensions.