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Anti-casino prayer at legislature draws fire

FRANKFORT, Ky. (BP) — When pastor and seminary professor Hershael York took the podium to offer a prayer prior to the Kentucky governor’s address to state legislators, senators and representatives likely didn’t expect to hear an appeal to God to defeat one of the governor’s chief legislative proposals.

But they did.

York, invited by the Senate president to deliver the prayer before Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear’s budget address, spent half his 80-second prayer Tuesday (Jan. 17) talking about the evils of gambling and how it entices the poor with a false hope to spend that which they cannot afford. Minutes after York’s prayer, Beshear walked into the joint session and delivered his budget proposal, asking legislators to take the first step to allow casinos into the state, saying it will help bring needed revenue to Kentucky.

York told Baptist Press he felt burdened to speak out.

“I want to frame this as a moral argument, not a fiscal or financial one, said York, pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort and professor of Christian preaching at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

York’s time at the podium certainly began as a normative legislative prayer, as he asked God to grant the legislators and the governor wisdom in their decisions. Seconds later, he switched gears.

“Help us to admit that we cannot truly love our neighbor as ourselves and then scheme to get his money by enticing him with vain hope,” York prayed. “May [legislators] not lead this state to share profits from an industry that preys on greed or desperation.”

He continued: “Help us to foster salaries and not slot machines, to build cars and enable jobs — not license casinos and seduce the simple into losing what they have. May their greatest concern not be that we get our share of the family’s losses, but that we foster a sense of hope and justice that creates opportunity and leads to success.”

After an “amen,” York walked away from the podium, and legislators knew they had just heard a prayer that likely would make the news.

“To some I’m a hero and to others I’m an idiot,” York told BP. “I try not to get too worked up over either one.”

Beshear, in his second term, is asking legislators to place a constitutional amendment before voters that, if approved, would allow expanded gambling in a state that already has horse tracks and a lottery. The fact that four of Kentucky’s neighboring states already have casinos — and a fifth one (Ohio) is building some — has Beshear seeing dollar signs.

“Gaming isn’t an end unto itself,” Beshear said during his address. “It’s a mechanism to keep our Kentucky money at home. An economic analysis just released estimates that, in 2010, Kentuckians spent $451 million on casino gaming in our neighboring states.”

The proposal would require passage by three-fifths of the House and Senate to go before voters. Democrats control the House, Republicans the Senate.

York, though, says no amount of money is worth the harm that gambling brings.

“I’ve seen firsthand tragedy in my church and in my ministry from people who have been addicted to gambling,” York told BP. “There are so many innocent people hurt by it. … One man in my church embezzled over $100,000 because of his gambling habit. I had to stand with him before a judge as he was sentenced, and our church had to help his family out. And now he and his family are outspoken opponents of gambling.”

York preached a revival at another church in Kentucky where he learned of other harm from gambling.

“There I met a lady whose husband committed suicide because of his gambling debt,” York recounted. “There was another lady who has to sleep with her keys at night so her husband won’t get the car keys and sneak across the river to West Virginia to the casinos and slot machines. A lot of people that I know personally have lost thousands of dollars. Gambling is a tax on the poor, it’s a tax on the simple.”

There are social security recipients, York said, who go across the river into Indiana the first of each month, sit in front of slot machines and “just gamble away their money.”

“If you bring casinos in the state, then you’re going to create new gamblers,” he said. “It’s not like you’re just building it for the ones who are already gambling. You’re going to create new addicts.”

Gambling, York added, is one of the issues where conservative and liberal pastors can unite.

“All of us in the trenches [are] caring for people … we all know this is bad,” he said. “I’m going to rally every pastor in the state that I can against this.”
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press. Watch York’s prayer online at vimeo.co/35229060. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email(baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Michael Foust