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Bingo parlors in Ark. county challenged by local Baptists

TUMBLING SHOALS, Ark. (BP)–Baptists and bingo are clashing in Cleburne County, Ark., after an associational moral concerns committee filed complaints with the county sheriff.

Six organizations are holding bingo games in the county. County Sheriff Wayne Milligan is investigating them and will file a report with the prosecuting attorney when all investigations are complete. The prosecuting attorney will then determine whether to file charges.

Two years ago Little Red River Baptist Association elected a moral concerns committee to address issues that were a problem around Greers Ferry Lake and throughout Cleburne County. Barry King, pastor of Tumbling Shoals Baptist Church, was elected chairman of the committee.

King, who had previously served on the state’s interdenominational Christian Civic Action Committee (now the Arkansas Faith and Ethics Committee) that successfully fought casino gambling in Arkansas, said three major areas of concern were pornography, gambling and alcohol.

Last year, with the help of the prosecuting attorney, several businesses dealing in pornography were raided, and they eventually closed.

After that initial success, the association set its sights on gambling. In Arkansas, the only commercial gambling that is allowed is pari-mutuel betting at racetracks. Any other form of gambling is illegal.

Seven bingo halls were operating in Cleburne County at the time, but King said the then-deputy prosecutor would not help prosecute the bingo operators. When a new deputy prosecutor took over, King asked him what was needed to move forward.

“He said we needed to file a complaint,” King said. “I filed a complaint with the county sheriff calling for enforcement of the gambling laws.” The complaint was witnessed by director of missions Carel Norman and Van Harness, pastor of West Side Baptist Church in Greers Ferry.

Milligan said he did not want to shut down the bingo parlors, but King pointed out that under state law if a complaint is filed and the sheriff fails to address it, he is subject to a $100 fine and immediate removal from office.

“I don’t agree with violating the law, but I think we have bigger problems that need our attention,” Milligan told the Heber Springs Sun-Times. “Things like drugs, alcohol, things like that have had a lot higher priority. As far as I know, bingo has never hurt anybody in the county. We’ve never gotten a call on a bingo parlor.”

Still, Milligan ordered the bingo parlors to cease operations by Feb. 1. As of March 1, they were still in operation.

At first, Milligan said District Prosecutor Don McSpadden indicated he would not file charges against charitable bingo operations, only against commercial businesses.

King said that is unacceptable.

“The law makes no distinction between charitable and non-charitable operations,” King said. “It is quite unambiguous. Sec. 19 Article 14 says that all gambling in Arkansas is illegal. Amendment 46 legalized pari-mutuel betting, and later the legislature said it could also authorize pari-mutuel betting on dogs. Anything other than that is illegal.”

Bingo operators have defended themselves by pointing out that they give money to local charities. In fact, Milligan said last year Cleburne County bingo operations contributed $60,000 to local charities, including a sheriffs’ camp for troubled youth.

“If that source dries up, I guess the sheriffs will have to contribute more of their own money,” Milligan said.

After he completes his bingo investigations, Milligan said, “I will not pull undercover officers off of serious cases to investigate bingo. We are eaten up with methamphetamine labs in our county, and methamphetamines kill people.

“Bingo is illegal in all 75 counties in Arkansas, but it has been going on since the 1940s,” Milligan said. “I have taken an oath to uphold the laws and the constitution, even if I don’t agree with a law. But I don’t think it is a high enough priority to pull someone off of serious crimes.”

The sheriff said a bigger concern to him is the spread of alcohol sales in “dry” counties. Although Arkansas voted to allow liquor sales to be decided on a county basis, the legislature formed the Alcoholic Beverage Control agency, which grants liquor licenses.

Even though Cleburne County is “dry,” the ABC routinely grants liquor license to “private clubs” in the county, against the will of the people and against the sheriff’s recommendations.

“I could care less whether a county is wet or dry,” Milligan said. “My concern is they have taken away the right of the people to vote and decide this issue for themselves.”

King said he is also concerned about the ABC’s actions, and the moral concerns committee is looking into working with other associations and the AFEC on a possible statewide referendum to deal with the alcohol issue.

Parker is associate editor of the Arkansas Baptist Newsmagazine.

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  • Dave Parker