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Gambling opponents exhort one another to stand strong

9/29/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

By Melissa Lauber*

WASHINGTON (UMNS) - For opponents of gambling, Maryland is a battleground state, where past victories are being challenged by renewed efforts to legalize slot machines.

It is also an example of how a bottom-up fight against legalized gambling can be won, said the Rev. Tom Grey, a United Methodist and anti-gambling activist.

For that reason, he said, Maryland was chosen as the site for the annual meeting of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling and the National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion. Grey is executive director of both groups.

About 125 people from 38 states gathered in Baltimore for the annual meeting Sept. 26-27. Barbara Knickelbein, a United Methodist and co-chair of NOcasiNO, hosted the gathering, rallying the participants by emphasizing that, like David, they could defeat the casino Goliath.

Eight years ago, a grass-roots coalition of religious, civic and business groups defeated a move to bring casinos to Maryland. State Delegate Peter Franchot, a Democrat from Montgomery County, said state Gov. Robert Ehrlich is supporting the legalization of slot machines in an effort to collect more than $800 million to address budget shortfalls.

Franchot said Ehrlich, a United Methodist, is doing this by making budget cuts to "raise the pain level" and encouraging voters to support the legalization move.

The strategy is working, Franchot said, citing public opinion polls. "We're perched on the edge of a cliff."

Maryland is not alone in fighting legalized gambling. This year, according to Grey, 19 states defeated efforts to bring slot machines to racetracks; five states successfully opposed the introduction of new casinos and seven opposed the expansion of casinos; six states won campaigns to deny lotteries; and five states defeated moves to allow convenience gambling in liquor, convenience and grocery stores and taverns.

However, 47 states have legalized gambling, said Richard C. Leone, an author of the 1999 National Gambling Impact Study and the keynote speaker at the conference.

"The bottom line is that gambling has become an economic and entertainment activity producing significant negative consequences for millions of individuals and families - consequences such as bankruptcy, divorce, crime and mental health disorders," he said. "At some point in their lives, more than 15 million Americans display problems associated with problem or pathological gambling. This year, Americans will spend more on gambling than they do on groceries."

Jim Winkler, top staff executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, condemned the "corrosive effects of gambling." Gambling, he said, offers "false hope for easy riches."

"The strongest words in all our denomination's Social Principles speak against gambling," Winkler said.

In its Social Principles, the church condemns gambling as "a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic, and spiritual life, and destructive of good government." It calls upon Christians to abstain from gambling and to minister those who are victimized by the practice.

At the two-day conference, participants heard panel discussions about the legal, political, economic, psychological, criminal and ethical dimensions of gambling. Experts used statistics to show gambling's impact:
· Law enforcement costs increase an average of 8 percent in communities that have legalized gambling, said Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.
· Every $1 in tax revenue raised by gambling is offset by $3 in social costs, said John Warren Kindt, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
· Thirty to 50 percent of revenues are derived from problem and pathological gamblers, reported Earl L. Grinols of the University of Illinois

The conference participants shared legal and lobbying strategies. Jeff Benedict of Connecticut told how lobbying efforts in his state helped defeat the expansion of Native American casinos.

"There is a better way than just visiting with legislators," said Benedict, who explained that politicians are moved by money, votes and adverse publicity. His organization gathered a database of e-mail addresses of civic leaders and encouraged them to forward a message they composed opposing the proposed statute. Then they encouraged the leaders to forward that message to 10 other people.

Legislators reported receiving more than 7,000 e-mail messages. "There's power in organizing people committed to a common goal," Benedict said.

Winkler encouraged the participants to continue speaking as prophets, especially when they feel overwhelmed. "The central challenge for people of faith today is how to put their faith into action and live holy lives," he said.

He closed by telling a Native American story of a boy who approached his grandfather about two wolves struggling within him. One was a wolf of peace, love and kindness; the other of fear, greed and hatred. "Which one will win the struggle?" the boy asked. The grandfather answered, "Which ever one you feed."

"Gambling," Winkler said, "feeds the wolf of fear, greed and hatred."

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*Lauber is associate editor of the UMConnection, the newspaper of the Baltimore-Washington Conference.

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