BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–Alabama voters rejected a state lottery Oct. 12 following an unprecedented and aggressive movement by the state’s churches.
With 98 percent of the precincts reporting, the vote was 663,988, or 54 percent, against and 559,377, or 46 percent, in favor.
“The reason we won is the churches,” said Jim Cooper of Citizens Against Legalized Lottery.
Cooper, who emerged late in the anti-lottery campaign, led opposition efforts through television advertising as well as through the churches.
“This issue was for our state and our families,” he said. “This is a great state, but there is never a right way to do wrong.
“I have four children, but gambling is never, never, never the right way to go,” Cooper said. “Gambling destroys lives, businesses and turns good people inside out.”
Commending the church groups for making the stand against the lottery, Cooper said Alabama’s people of faith are “what makes Alabama great.”
“They are the ones who love their neighbors, are in the trenches helping others and are counseling the … men and women,” Cooper said.
Still, the victory did not come easily. In fact, early polls showed the lottery winning by more than 60 percent. It was the final hours before the vote lottery opponents believe made the difference.
“The polls said we would lose, and two weeks ago we would have had a different result,” said Lt. Gov. Steve Windom. “The diligent work of the people of faith in getting the word out made this God’s victory,” he said.
“The people of faith came together and said, ‘We don’t want gambling in Alabama,’ and they said it loud and clear,” Windom, a member of First Baptist Church, Tillman’s Corner, near Mobile, said of church activities in opposition to the lottery. From passing out “No Lottery” bumper stickers and signs to preaching against the ills of gambling, churchgoers fought hard, he said.
“The prayer vigils and days of fasting also gave a sense of strength and clarity,” Windom added. And the 400-plus ministers who gathered at the statehouse a few days before the vote to voice their opposition to the lottery “came with the same message and the same sense of purpose.”
Joe Bob Mizzell, head of Christian ethics at the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, said Anti-Gambling Sunday on Sept. 19 also made a difference. “The churches went to work after that and responded to all the materials we provided,” he said.
“It was truly a David and Goliath scenario,” Windom said, noting lottery foes were outspent four to one but still won by more than 100,000 votes.
The churches also encouraged the record voter turnout, said Dan Ireland, executive director of Alabama Citizens Action Program.
“We sent a sincere, strong message,” said Ireland, who took a lead role in the lottery opposition. “People across denominational lines came together and stood shoulder to shoulder for the Lord and for morality,” he said.
“This can also serve as additional encouragement for South Carolina to vote out slot machines” in the upcoming Nov. 2 referendum in a state with more than 30,000 video poker machines, Ireland said, noting Alabama’s move will affect the nation.
“Alabama was the first state to vote on gambling following the [National Gambling Impact Study Commission’s June 18 report],” he said. “And the state has expressed a concurrence with what the study commission came out with.”
The nine-member commission, which was created by Congress in August 1996 and approved by President Bill Clinton, consisted of three members each appointed by the president, the speaker of the House and the majority leader of the Senate. The group was diversified with strong gambling proponents and opponents serving on the commission.
After studying the issue, the commission called on states to put a moratorium on the expansion of gambling.
“Several things involved in [Alabama’s] vote would have gone against what the study commission had recommended [if the lottery had been approved],” Ireland said, noting expansion of gambling, convenience gambling and the lack of a study on the economic and social impact on the community.
“Alabama has said to the nation, stop and think about what the commission said,” Ireland said. “I hope [the vote in Alabama] is a positive call to the church leaders in South Carolina to say it can be done,” where voters could face a decision to legalize a lottery in the coming year.
While Gov. Don Siegelman portrayed the lottery as the state’s only chance to improve education, he conceded to the people of Alabama with a vow to continue his fight for education.
“In my inaugural address I said we would try new things and if they did not work, then we would try something else,” Siegelman told supporters Oct. 12.
“The people of Alabama have spoken and tonight I accept their decision,” he said. “Tomorrow we will try something else.
“I was elected governor to change education in this state forever and that is exactly what I plan to do,” Siegelman said. “I’m not going to stop fighting for our children’s future and to change education forever.”
Siegelman was expected to announce a new plan to improve education Oct. 13, even though he campaigned intensely on the fact that there was no other way except a lottery.
Modeling the proposed state-sponsored lottery after Georgia’s lottery, Siegelman said the lottery would raise $150 million a year for college scholarships, pre-kindergarten classes and school technology.
But opponents claimed the $150 million would cost Alabama’s economy $450 million in other areas.
Following the vote, however, Siegelman called on opponents as well as supporters to work together to improve schools. “Now is the time for us to unite behind a single purpose of providing the very best educational opportunities for all of Alabama’s children,” he said.
And lottery foes agree. They have vowed to work with Siegelman in his efforts to improve Alabama’s education system.
“The vote yesterday was not against scholarships, pre-kindergarten and technology,” Windom said. “It was against financing it with gambling dollars.”
“The positive thing that came out of the vote was the heightened awareness for the need to improve education,” said Buddy Gray, president of the Alabama Baptist State Convention. “I think almost everybody in Alabama sees the great need for improvement in the education system, but the lottery is not the way to bring that change.”
Lenora Pate, who challenged Siegelman for the 1998 Democratic gubernatorial nomination, agreed the momentum to improve education began with the lottery debate.
“Men and women of faith and of good will have been moved about education,” said Pate, a member of Dawson Memorial Baptist Church in Birmingham. “The common theme among [Alabamians] is that they want to know the truth about education, do what needs to be done to support education and fund it the right way.
“That momentum and spirit of revival in the hearts of the people have begun,” Pate said. But not only will education benefit, “everything in the public sector will benefit,” she added.
Pate, along with Windom and Ireland, said they left messages with Siegelman as the election results were being calculated and early the next morning.
“I want to meet with him and share with him all that I have seen and heard about the broad-based coalition of people from all walks of life who are ready [to help] education,” Pate said. “All of us who opposed the lottery will join with him in spirit and truth to benefit education and all other issues.”
“All of us together can come out with something more honorable than gambling,” Ireland said. “I think the major emphasis should be on K-12 and then move into other areas as we can.
“But K-12 should be the priority because it is mandated by law that kids go to school up to age 16 and if we don’t equip them in those grades, we won’t need to provide college for them,” he said, noting that 70-75 percent of Georgia college students never graduate due to lack of early preparation.
Windom said he is ready to discuss a scholarship plan with Siegelman that “would truly help the poor people go to college.”
“We can do this with existing revenues and with no new taxes,” Windom said. “I’ve extended a hand. We can move this state forward, and I’m hopeful we can work together.”
Gambling opponents outside Alabama, meanwhile, were delighted by the lottery’s defeat.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, called it a “great victory for the state of Alabama, for righteousness in government and for Baptists. This victory over the pro-gambling interests shows that when Christians resolve to be the salt and the light that our Savior commanded us to be with the facts and the arguments laid out in a reasonable and clear fashion, we can triumph over opponents who are far better financed.”
Barrett Duke, the ERLC’s anti-gambling specialist, commended “the many people who worked thousands of hours to assure the defeat of the lottery proposal in Alabama. The churches of that great state are to be especially commended. It is likely that their efforts made the difference in the defeat of the lottery.”
Ron Reno of Focus on the Family agreed.
The lottery “looked nearly impossible to defeat, but the church in Alabama, to its great credit, really rose up and stood for truth and compassion and proclaimed those loudly,” said Reno, anti-gambling specialist for the Colorado Springs, Colo.,-based organization. “There would be a lottery in Alabama today no doubt if hundreds and hundreds of pastors in Alabama had not had the courage and conviction to lead this fight and expose the truth.”
Focus on the Family did mailings to both its Alabama constituents and state pastors on its mailing list in the month leading to the vote. Focus President James Dobson did a radio show on the subject just on stations in Alabama. Dobson was a member of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission.
“Alabama serves as a model for all future efforts to stop the expansion of gambling,” Duke said. “Every state, especially South Carolina, should take heart from what happened in Alabama. I look forward to the day when all of our states experience the victory Alabama is enjoying today over gambling.”
Land said, “In the future, ‘Remember what happened in Alabama’ ought to be the new rallying cry for those who would protect their homes and communities from the scourge of legalized gambling.”
Tom Strode & Dwayne Hastings contributed to this article.