By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 1, 2008
For years, as many as 200 members of Immanuel Bible Church and their friends have gathered in the church's fellowship hall to watch the Super Bowl on its six-foot screen. The party featured hard hitting on the TV, plenty of food -- and prayer.
But this year, Immanuel's Super Bowl party is no more. After a crackdown by the National Football League on big-screen Super Bowl gatherings by churches, the Springfield church has sacked its event. Instead, church members will host parties in their homes.
Immanuel is among a number of churches in the Washington area and elsewhere that have been forced to use a new playbook to satisfy the NFL, which said that airing games at churches on large-screen TV sets violates the NFL copyright.
Ministers are not happy.
"There is a part of me that says, 'Gee, doesn't the NFL have enough money already?'" said Steve Holley, Immanuel's executive pastor. He pointed out that bars are still allowed to air the game on big-screens TV sets. "It just doesn't make sense."
The Super Bowl, the most secular of American holidays, has long been popular among churches. With parties, prayer and Christian DVDs replacing the occasionally racy halftime shows, churches use the event as a way to reach members, and potential new members, in a non-churchlike atmosphere.
"It takes people who are not coming frequently, or who have fallen away, and shows them that the church can still have some fun," said the Rev. Thomas Omholt, senior pastor of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in the District. Omholt has hosted a Super Bowl party for young adults in his home for 20 years. "We can be a little less formal."
The NFL said, however, that the copyright law on its games is long-standing and the language read at the end of each game is well known: "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."
The league bans public exhibitions of its games on TV sets or screens larger than 55 inches because smaller sets limit the audience size. The section of federal copyright law giving the NFL protection over the content of its programming exempts sports bars, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said.
The issue came to a head last year after the NFL sent a letter to Fall Creek Baptist Church in Indianapolis, warning the church not show the Super Bowl on a giant video screen. For years, the church had held a Super Bowl party in its auditorium, attracting about 400 people and showing the game on a big screen usually reserved for hymn lyrics.
The letter "was really a disturbing thing," said Marlene Broome, a spokeswoman for the church.
The church canceled last year's party. This year, its adult Sunday school classes are having parties in homes, but Broome said church members miss the big gatherings. "Everybody really had a good time," she said.
Large Super Bowl gatherings around big-screen sets outside of homes shrink TV ratings and can affect advertising revenue, McCarthy said. "We have no objection to churches and others hosting Super Bowl parties as long as they . . . show the game on a television of the type commonly used at home," he said. "It is a matter of copyright law."
The same policy applies to all NFL games and to movie theaters, large halls and other venues with big-screen TVs, he said.
The policy has prompted some drastic downscaling. Last year, Vienna Presbyterian Church planned a party in its fellowship hall for its middle school and high school students, airing the game on its 12-foot video screen. Church leaders had hoped to use the game to draw in the teenagers, often a tough crowd to get through church doors.
"We thought we had found our magic bullet," said Barb Jones, the church's director of communication. The event was canceled, however, after the church heard about the Indianapolis case.
This year, Vienna Presbyterian plans a party for teenagers in its basement, showing the game on smaller TV sets.
Like other churches, Vienna Presbyterian will not charge admission to view the game, and it will not use the event as a fundraiser. In a testimony to the drawing power of the Super Bowl, churches do not use the Academy Awards or other high-rated televised events to evangelize.
To avoid attracting the ire of the NFL, some churches are even giving Super Bowl parties a more generic name. Broadfording Bible Brethren Church in Hagerstown will call its annual event the "Big Game Party."
The church still plans to show the game on its jumbo-size screen near the pulpit in its sanctuary. Pastor Bill Wyand said he has heard secondhand about the policy and is not sure whether screening the game via the church's video-projector system violates NFL policy. Still, he is looking nervously over his shoulder.
On the legal flip side, the NFL's big-screen ban could end up landing the league in trouble.
John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville civil liberties group that focuses on religious freedom issues, is threatening to sue the NFL on behalf of an Alabama church that wants to host a big-screen Super Bowl party. He is also seeking sponsors for federal legislation to exempt churches from the ban.
"It's ridiculous," Whitehead said. "You can go into these stores now and buy 100-inch screens. The law is just outdated."