Churches hesitant to sue NFL

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — John Whitehead is aching to take the National Football League to court but can't find a church willing to take on the influential pro football colossus.

"You go to any bar on Super Bowl Sunday and they'll be showing the game on their [big screen] TVs," the president of The Rutherford Institute said.

The conservative nonprofit legal organization represented Fall Creek Baptist Church last February in its legal tussle with the NFL.

"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."

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the reason bars and sporting establishments are permitted to show the game on larger screens is a legal exemption for organizations that use them year-round instead of for a one-time event. Baptist Press knows of at least one unidentified church that called the NFL earlier this year and cited the exemption for those who use large screens year-round. The church argued that because it uses its screen year-round, it should be exempted. The NFL allowed the church to hold the party without interference.

Measured against the increased size of home TV sets, not only is the screen size stipulation absurd, Whitehead said, but the law cited by the NFL is vague and silly.

Though he hasn't discussed the issue with any congressmen, Whitehead said he is sure some legislators agree the law is obsolete and would overturn it if church members organized a grassroots campaign.

"If you go to a bar and watch the game, you buy all the products, drink a lot of beer and go out and do all the things [advertisers] want you to do," Whitehead said. "In church they're not going to do that. There's a subplot to all this that ought to offend Christians."

The pastor of Fall Creek Baptist said the church didn't proceed with a lawsuit last February because they decided a legal case would create a distraction from their ministry.

"My heart for Indianapolis goes way beyond a Super Bowl," John Newland said. "I feel like I would be doing my church a big disservice if I allowed my calling to be distracted by a lawsuit. To me, the NFL isn't worth it."

In addition, as a conservative who doesn't like the idea of judges legislating from the bench, Newland said he couldn't argue that the NFL was misinterpreting the law.

Besides, the strength of the body of Christ has been its flexibility to adapt to various situations, the pastor said, as Fall Creek did by shifting to home parties rather than one large church gathering for the Super Bowl.

"The solution for us is to multiply cells and put it in homes and they can't touch us," Newland said. "We're going to be able to have our party, it's just going to be on a smaller scale."

Other pastors offered various reasons for not tangling with the NFL in court, such as the commitment of both time and energy required to pursue a lawsuit.

Tom Rives, pastor of Carrollwood Baptist Church in Tampa, Fla., said his congregation averages 375 on a Sunday and doesn't have the financial resources to tackle the NFL.

"The only way you would get somebody to do this rather than an individual church would be to get some corporate entity, where pastors would be able to be part of a group," Rives said. "I'm not willing to take on the NFL by myself."

Even a church with the financial muscle of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky., which is among the 10 largest churches in the nation, decided it didn't want to have the reputation as the church that brought litigation, its minister of single adults said.

Jeff Ballard said the church's legal counsel researched the law last winter and decided it was vague enough that Southeast Christian could have challenged the NFL. But after weighing the decision, Ballard said they decided to comply with the restrictions.

"It's a matter of choosing your battles," Ballard said. "We decided it wasn't worth it to us."

Although unhappy with the NFL's dictates, Richard Odom, pastor of First Baptist Church in Summerfield, N.C., said his church felt it had to comply with the law because of Romans 13's guidelines. The Apostle Paul makes it clear that, unless the government is trying to forbid the preaching of the Gospel, believers are to obey the law, Odom said.

"I don't think we intentionally want to violate the law," Odom said. "It's a horrible example to set for our kids."

Aside from legal issues, the senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund thinks the pro football league is fighting a losing battle in the court of public opinion. Mike Johnson said his nonprofit legal group received two calls last February from churches upset about the policy.

Even though they decided not to press a case, Johnson said the NFL has been subject to a spate of bad news this year, from gripes about the NFL Network to player suspensions to substance abuse issues.

"From a marketing perspective, why would you throw cold water on that?" Johnson said of church parties. "It seems to me they would want to encourage these church gatherings and not discourage them."

Newland agreed, saying the league is shooting itself in the foot by discouraging parties that would draw numerous young people. Many teens aren't big football fans because they follow X Games and extreme sports, he said.

"Ultimately it's the consumer who decides if they succeed," Newland, Fall Creek's pastor, said. "The millions who walked away from baseball and the NBA can just as easily walk away from the NFL."