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Close-Up: Religious groups unite against gambling


Close-Up: Religious groups unite against gambling

By Amy Green

Produced for by United Methodist News Service

(UMNS) - The Rev. Skip Armistead believes Tennessee voters are facing their state’s most important ballot question in years, and he’s praying hard and working tirelessly to ensure they decide against a lottery.

The Rev. James Hamilton, pastor of Covenant and New Hope United Methodist Churches in west Tennessee, puts out anti-lottery signs in front of Trinity United Methodist Church in Paris, Tenn. Religious leaders across the state have joined forces to oppose a state lottery. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose
Tennessee is one of just three states with no legalized gambling, and the United Methodist minister has teamed with all sorts of religious leaders – from Baptists to Muslims – to try to keep it that way. For months, the group has been preparing quietly for an aggressive campaign leading up to the Nov. 5 vote.

“Tennessee is looked upon as the place to stop the national expansion of gambling,” says Armistead, chairman of Religious Leaders for a Gambling Free Tennessee and a pastor in Madison, just north of Nashville. “To defeat this in Tennessee would be a major stake at turning back the expansion of gambling.”

Gambling unites religious leaders like few other issues. United Methodists across the country have joined with other opponents in what many view as a moral, not political, fight against something that fosters addiction and crime. They believe their efforts are especially important now, as budget deficits make the push for gambling even stronger in many states.

Besides Tennessee, voters in Arizona and Idaho will be asked in November whether they want to expand their state’s gambling activities or begin new ones. In Iowa, voters in 10 counties will be asked whether they want to keep riverboat gambling and racetrack casinos. In North Dakota, voters will be asked about joining a multistate lottery.

The Rev. Glenn Elliott assembles anti-lottery yard signs in his office at Trinity United Methodist Church in Paris, Tenn. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
The United Methodist Church’s Book of Resolutions condemns gambling as “a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic, and spiritual life, and destructive of good government.”

Church members are trying to convince voters that gamblers are usually the poor. Mark Harrison, a program director for the denomination’s Board of Church and Society, says gambling teaches that hard work is not important. He worries that gambling – and gambling addictions – are more rampant now that betting on the Internet is so easy.

Many United Methodists have put together Web sites and e-mailed newsletters. Others are organizing prayer vigils and rallies.

In Nebraska, which has a lottery, United Methodists teamed with other religious leaders to successfully challenge in court the legality of a petition putting slot machines and video slot casinos on the November ballot. An appeal is pending.

Tennessee’s gambling vote will be among the most closely watched in November. Besides Tennessee, only Hawaii and Utah have no legalized gambling. Some fear if Tennessee voters agree to lift the state’s constitutional ban on lotteries, the game will quickly spread to North Carolina, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Wyoming.

The Rev. Tom Grey
The Rev. Tom Grey, a United Methodist minister and spokesman for the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, says religious groups are a formidable force in the fight against legalized gambling, a struggle many view as a moral, not political, fight against something that only encourages addiction and crime. A UMNS photo by Cathy Farmer.
“Tennessee is sort of a bellwether,” says the Rev. Tom Grey, a United Methodist and spokesman for the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling.

United Methodists in the state are working with the Southern Baptist Convention and other religious groups, as well as the secular Gambling Free Tennessee Alliance.

Gambling supporters are not worried. They are betting on the “tens of millions of Americans who recognize gambling for what it is: a form of entertainment that they enjoy responsibly,” says Dean Hestermann, a spokesman for Las Vegas-based Harrah’s Entertainment Inc., which operates 26 casinos nationwide.

Supporters say gambling creates jobs and generates tax revenue. The industry employs more than 1 million people nationwide, according to the American Gaming Association. The association notes that in Mississippi, where the industry employs 3 percent of the state’s work force, welfare payments have dropped in counties with casinos, while payments have risen in other counties.

In Tennessee, proponents argue the state’s residents have been gambling for years – in neighboring states. With a lottery, the state finally can capture that revenue and use it to fund scholarships, pre-kindergarten programs and school construction.

A church sign reading 'Lotteries Target the Poor'
The sign in front of Cowell’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Cambden, Tenn., reflects the church’s anti-lottery stance on a Nov. 5 ballot item. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
“I think it’s the only way we’re going to help education in this state, because we don’t have any new money,” says state Sen. Steve Cohen, a lottery advocate.

Armistead believes that defeating a lottery in Tennessee will take more than teamwork. He is among those organizing a prayer vigil the night before voters cast their ballots.

“We believe prayer is the only solution,” he says. “It takes lots of prayer.”

Green is a free-lance writer in Nashville, Tenn. She formerly covered religion for the Associated Press.

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