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Campaign against video poker picks up steam in South Carolina

COLUMBIA, S.C. (BP)–Churches in South Carolina — a state swarming with 34,000 video poker machines — have been silent too long, B. Carlisle Driggers, executive director of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, acknowledged.
“Church leaders and members have been far too silent for too long on the emergence of public gambling in South Carolina,” Driggers wrote in the state’s Baptist Courier newsjournal Aug. 5. “We must take our share of the blame, but on Nov. 2, 1999, we can do something about it.”
A Nov. 2 statewide referendum will pose one question to voters: “Shall cash payouts for credits earned on video game machines continue to be allowed after June 30, 2000?” A yes vote will keep the video poker industry legal, and, according to the bill, will increase the cash payout from the current $125 limit per game to $500 per game. A no vote will, in effect, ban the video poker industry beginning June 30, 2000.
Current laws regarding video poker remain in effect until the referendum.
The statewide vote was approved by the South Carolina’s legislature July 1 in a last-minute move during a special session.
“We have one last, final chance to ban video poker,” Joe Mack, Christian life concerns director for the state convention, told the Baptist Courier. “South Carolina Baptists have always been opposed to gambling, and they have seen the evidence of video poker’s negative effect on our society. I believe it is up to our churches now to take full advantage of this referendum and ban video poker in South Carolina.”
The state convention began a mailing campaign in early July to encourage churches to help make sure their members are registered to vote, Mack told The State, a daily newspaper in Columbia, in a July 16 article. Baptist leaders across the state will meet periodically during the coming months to step up their “It’s right to vote ‘No'” anti-gambling campaign, perhaps including plans to use church vans to take voters to the polls on Nov. 2, Mack said.
In opposing video poker, Mack said, “We’re just doing what we’ve always done and believe in.”
Other denominations involved in efforts to defeat video poker in the Nov. 2 referendum, according to The State, include Roman Catholics, United Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterian Church in America, Pentecostal Holiness and Evangelical Lutheran.
Driggers, in his Baptist Courier article, recounted hearing a state representative who advocates video poker remark that churches had “failed” to stop the growth of video poker during a public debate in early 1998.
“I’ll tell you, that observation stuck in my heart like a dagger,” Driggers wrote, “and it has been there ever since.”
Driggers noted he is “not sure that churches must take all the blame for public gambling in the state. What about business leaders and governmental officials and educators and medical personnel and law enforcement directors, to name only a few professions?”
Nevertheless, Driggers wrote, “The message we need to convey to our people right now is, if you are not registered to vote, call or go to your county courthouse and get registered … . Then, mark the date of Nov. 2 on your calendar to go vote ‘no’ and rid the state of video poker once and for all.”
Driggers noted his opposition to gambling “in any form” stems from biblical teachings on greed and corruption, “but there is more for me personally. It comes from years of assisting individuals and families in all kinds of situations. … I have seen families torn apart because of gambling debts. I have seen hungry children because either or both of their parents were gamblers. I have seen persons lose all they owned because of their gambling habits, and then become robbers and thieves and murderers, or commit suicide. I have known of parents playing video poker machines while their infants were left to die in sweltering cars. I have seen good politicians and even lawyers go bad due to their gambling addictions.”
Samuel Isgett, chairman of the state convention’s Christian Life and Public Affairs Committee and executive director for academic planning and assessment at North Greenville College, writes in a column scheduled for the Baptist Courier Aug. 19, “South Carolina Baptists have consistently expressed our revulsion at the spread of video poker, ‘the crack cocaine of gambling,’ in our state. We have sent our resolutions to governors and legislators, hoping enough of them would decide to act in the best interests of their constituents. The numbers have always fallen short, sometimes merely as the result of parliamentary funny business. Now we can speak directly and forcefully in a binding referendum.
“No other issue will be on the ballot. No Democrat, no Republican has to be supported or opposed. This election is about a straightforward decision on a clearly moral issue. We need to help South Carolina shout a resounding ‘No!’” Isgett wrote.
“The poker barons have shown that they will stop at nothing to have their way,” he continued. “They have corrupted the political process, illegally exceeded statutory payout limits, illegally provided alcohol and other inducements to gamblers, created a climate of fear fueled by greed among scores of small business operators, and clogged our courts in their attempts to defy the law. Any local magistrate in the state can relate story after story of the pernicious effects of the video poker industry run wild in our communities. We need not think that passing regulations, no matter how stringent, will change anything. It’s time to shut the poker barons down by voting no.”
Isgett warned the “poker barons will cry that jobs will be lost if they are put out of business. While this might be true, convenience stores were in business and turning a tidy profit before video poker came on the scene. They will remain in business after video poker is gone, probably healthier than ever. Money now being thrown down the sewer of video poker will be channeled back into purchasing groceries from store shelves and gasoline from the pumps. Employees can take pride in providing legitimate goods and services to the public instead of shamefully picking their neighbors’ pockets. We need not be fooled into accepting the phony argument that worthwhile jobs will be lost.
“We must be courageous enough to stand firm when the poker barons vilify us and accuse us of telling people how to spend their own money,” Isgett wrote.
Driggers, in his column, stated that contributions to the Baptist convention’s campaign against video poker, via checks made payable to the South Carolina Baptist Convention and designated for “Vote NO against video poker,” can be mailed to the Accounting Department, South Carolina Baptist Convention, 190 Stoneridge Drive, Columbia, SC 29210-8254.

Amanda Phifer contributed to this article.