The biggest game of the year will be on television screens across the country this weekend as the undefeated New England Patriots take on the New York Giants. But the much-anticipated football game won't likely be showing on screens inside the churches this year.
After the National Football League gave warning last year to an Indianapolis church not to hold a Super Bowl viewing party, churches across the country are canceling their annual Super Bowl fellowships in fear of getting flagged for copyright violations.
North River Community Church in Pembroke, Mass., had scheduled a big gathering this Sunday with the big game on a giant video screen in the congregation's worship center. But the church's pastor, the Rev. Paul Atwater, called it off after he looked over the NFL's policies and news reports of churches that were threatened with legal action for planning similar showings last year, according to The Daily News Tribune.
"Even though we think this is a stupid law, we are going to abide by it," Atwater said, as reported by the local Tribune.
NFL policy and copyright law ban mass out-of-home viewing except at sports bars and other businesses that televise sports as part of their everyday operations. It also prohibits charging admission to watch the game.
"We have absolutely no objection to churches and others hosting Super Bowl parties," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said. "We've never stopped a church from doing anything like this, as long as they aren't trying to attract 400 or 500 people."
Thousands of mass showings at churches would significantly reduce network TV ratings, and thus cut the ad revenue, McCarthy noted. Super Bowl XLII is expected to break the 1996 record when 94.1 million people watched the Dallas Cowboys beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Churches are allowed to screen the Super Bowl as long as the space is not more than 2,000 square feet and the TV screen no bigger than 55 inches.
McCarthy insisted the NFL doesn't single out churches when it comes to protecting their Super Bowl trademark. The league has also warned hotels, theaters and other venues.
But after last year's episode with the Indianapolis church – Fall Creek Baptist – Christians complained that their effort to provide a family-friendly alternative to watching the big game in bars and places where alcohol is served was blocked.
John Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, wants to take the NFL to court but said he can't find a church willing to take on the league, according to Baptist Press.
"They want to restrict it to a 55-inch screen, which in a big church you'd need binoculars to see," Whitehead said. "It's designed to prevent churches and groups like that from doing this. If churches en masse wanted to do this, they could get the law changed."
Fall Creek Baptist's John Newland said the church didn't go ahead with a lawsuit last year because a legal case would distract them from their ministry.
"To me, the NFL isn't worth it," Newland said, as reported by Baptist Press.
Like many other churches this year, Fall Creek Baptist will be encouraging smaller viewing parties in people's homes.
The New England Patriots and the New York Giants will battle it out on Sunday at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.