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ERLC endorses Tenn. bill to deter animal fighting

[[email protected]@right=“The incestuous relationship between animal fighting, gambling and organized crime continues to grow.”
— Russell Moore]NASHVILLE (BP) — The Southern Baptist Convention’s ethics entity has endorsed a Tennessee bill designed to deter animal fighting.

In a March 2 letter, Russell Moore told Tennessee Speaker of the House Beth Harwell the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission strongly supports a proposal that would increase penalties for participation in cockfighting and for attendance at an animal fight. Moore is president of the ERLC.

The legislation seeks to rein in a practice that involves the killing of animals for sport, gambling on the results of the fights and exposure of children to violence primarily against dogs and chickens.

Animal fighting is “detrimental to many of our communities and the families that call them home,” Moore said in the letter.

“[T]he incestuous relationship between animal fighting, gambling and organized crime continues to grow” with each year the legislature does not increase the penalties, he told Harwell.

“Unfortunately, Tennessee plays host to these conferences of nefarious activities because the punishment for dogfighting and cockfighting is a slap on the wrist in comparison to the payouts.”

Gambling and animal fighting, Moore said, “are societal ills that are each harmful to our communities on their own. However, when the two are combined, the result is individuals betting on the outcome of undeniable cruelty, and this is simply unacceptable.”

The legislation, House Bill 0962, would: (1) Increase the penalty for a second or later conviction for involvement in cockfighting to a Class E felony; (2) strengthen the penalty for being a spectator at an animal fight to a Class A misdemeanor; and (3) establish taking a child under 18 years of age to an animal fight as a Class A misdemeanor.

Punishment for a Class E felony in Tennessee is a prison term of one to six years, as well as a possible fine of as much as $3,000. Punishment for a Class A misdemeanor in the state is jail time of less than a year and/or a fine of up to $2,500.

Currently, involvement in a dogfight is a felony, but involvement in a cockfight is only a Class A misdemeanor. Meanwhile, being a spectator at a cockfight is a Class C misdemeanor, which carries maximum punishments of only a $50 fine and/or a 30-day jail sentence. Being a spectator at a dogfight can result in a maximum $500 fine and and/or six months in jail.

Efforts in the Tennessee legislature to increase animal fighting penalties have failed repeatedly in recent years.

Both dogfighting and cockfighting are marked by death or serious wounds to the animals involved. In dogfighting, the loser typically dies, according to the Humane Society of the United States. With few exceptions, either the winning dog kills the loser or the handler or owner kills it, the Humane Society told Baptist Press.

In cockfighting, two roosters often fight with gaffs — knife- or razor-like weapons — strapped to their legs. The outcome often is death for at least one of the birds.

“It’s a very cruel and prolonged death for the animals,” said Reasa Currier, the Humane Society’s strategic initiatives manager for Faith Outreach. “Usually, both animals come out of the ring with significant wounds.”

Animal fighting is an “ongoing and vast problem” in Tennessee, primarily because of its low fines in contrast to stiffer penalties in the surrounding states of Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Missouri and Arkansas, Currier told BP.

The section of the Tennessee bill that strengthens penalties against being a spectator at an animal fight is especially important. “[T]hat’s everyone’s defense: ‘Oh, I was just a spectator,'” she said of those who actually organize the fights or own or handle the animals.

Also, an “increasing and pronounced link between organized crime and animal fighting” has been observed in the state, Currier said. In April 2014, a raid in Nashville on a cocaine and heroin trafficking ring also uncovered a dogfighting operation. Thirty-eight dogs were rescued, according to WSMV-TV.

The proposal of a penalty for taking children to an animal fight is important “because we always see children in attendance at these fights,” Currier said. “These children are learning that violence towards animals is an acceptable form of entertainment. There is a growing body of evidence that individuals that are violent towards animals are violent towards people.”

The ERLC continues a tradition among evangelical Christians by supporting efforts to stop animal fighting, Currier said.

“Eliminating animal fighting has been a priority of evangelical Christians since the 18th Century,” she told BP.

Abolitionist William Wilberforce was among British evangelicals who led opposition to animal fighting, which was a “very rampant form of entertainment” in England at that time, she said. “It was Christians who first said, ‘This is unacceptable. God’s creation is deserving of our mercy.’

“Even something as humble as a chicken or a dog deserves our protection and our mercy,” she said. “I’m grateful that the ERLC is standing up for that and continuing that tradition.”

It is not the first time the ERLC has endorsed attempts to combat animal fighting. In 2012, the entity endorsed an initiative to strengthen penalties against cockfighting in South Carolina.

The Tennessee bill has been assigned to the House’s Criminal Justice Subcommittee.