DETROIT (BP)–Southern Baptists in Michigan have joined the struggle to keep Detroit from becoming the nation’s largest city with casino gambling.
Petitions calling for a statewide referendum in November have been circulating for several months through the state’s 261 Southern Baptist churches and 56 missions, said Michael Collins, executive director of the Michigan Baptist Convention. There are about 43,000 Southern Baptists in Michigan.
Officials say 247,127 signatures of registered voters are needed on the petitions by May 27 for the measure to appear on the ballot. The referendum is necessary, said Collins, in order to overturn a 1996 statewide vote that approved casino gambling in the state by a 51-49 percent margin. Similar measures had been rejected by Michigan voters on four occasions since 1975, though casinos have been in existence on Indian reservations throughout the state for several years. Michigan also has a state lottery.
“We’re praying there will be enough signatures to get this back on the ballot,” Collins said. “Once that is accomplished, we feel there will be enough time to educate the public so we can win in November.”
Approximately 125,000 signatures have been collected thus far by the Coalition to Repeal Proposal E, a pro-family group spearheading the petition drive. Focus on the Family and the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling (NCALG) have entered the fray in recent weeks in an all-out effort to get a November vote.
About 120,000 letters were mailed to Michigan voters by Focus on the Family in April, according to Ron Reno, senior research analyst for the organization’s department of legislative and cultural affairs. “We also mailed letters to about 5,000 pastors throughout the state urging them to get involved in the petition drive.
“The church, collectively, is awakening across our country,” Reno said. “When it takes the lead and works together, it has been very successful” against gambling.
Indeed, the gambling industry has been defeated in 21 of the last 23 showdowns across the country, including its most recent defeat — by more than a 2-1 margin — in Oklahoma. While casinos are legal on Indian reservations in Michigan, petition organizers point to a recent vote by the Navajo nation which rejected legalized casinos on its lands.
If Michigan voters overturn the 1996 vote, it could derail plans by the Detroit City Council and Mayor Dennis Archer who have approved the construction of a $1.8 billion complex of three hotel-casinos downtown along the Detroit River. The project has caused division among Motor City citizens, 76 percent of whom are black. Many of the city’s black clergy are supporting the city’s plans, citing as a defense for their position the projected 11,000 new jobs the three casinos claim they will create. The gambling industry projects annual tax revenue to reach $130 million for the city and $100 million for the state.
Martha Jean Steinberg, a Detroit minister and radio personality who is an investor in one of the casinos, believes the casinos will be the city’s saving grace. “I prayed on this,” she recently told the The New York Times. “He spoke to me and said my name. Detroit is a woman. The woman has been beaten down and talked about by everyone in the world, and now the Lord has lifted her up and anointed her with a new opportunity. We’re going to heal our wounds.”
“This will create a minimum of 50 real, solid black millionaires,” Herb Strather, a black real estate developer and president of a company that will have a majority interest in one of the casinos, told The New York Times.
But Bill Quick, chairman of the Coalition For the Repeal of Proposal E and senior pastor of Detroit’s Metropolitan United Methodist Church, warns the money will not be worth the broken families, spouse and child abuse, increased crime and bankruptcies the casinos will cause.
“The cash cow will become a Trojan horse,” he said. “What we’re really seeing here is greed in the name of need. We have the lowest jobless rate in 40 years (under 4 percent) and that money will produce nothing except social problems.”
Organizations like Quick’s point to a myriad of studies to support their warnings. For example, a report prepared by the Florida governor’s executive office concluded tax revenues from casino gambling in Florida would only pay for a maximum of 13 percent of the minimum projected crime and social costs that would result from the presence of casino gambling in the state. An April 1996 Reader’s Digest article stated between 1988, when the first of Minnesota’s 17 casinos began operating, and 1994, counties with casinos saw the crime rate rise twice as fast as those without casinos. The increase was the greatest for crimes linked to gambling, such as fraud, theft and forgery/counterfeiting.
Quick and Tom Gray, NCALG executive director, began a five-day, 20-city blitz across Michigan April 20 to rally support for the petition.
“This has been a way to bridge denominational and theological differences between churches and it is in that spirit that they have made a target of a predatory enterprise called gambling,” Gray said.
Gray met with church leaders, crossing a dozen Christian denominations as well as the Muslim and Mormon faiths representing 1.2 million members, in Detroit recently. “The commitment has been made to get this done,” he said. “If I was a betting person, I’d bet this will be on the ballot in November. Leadership was lacking in 1996, but this time it is a priority. I am gratified by what I’ve seen.
“We want 400,000 signatures because the gambling industry will spend millions of dollars to get rid of our signatures on the petition in order to protect their investment. The commitment has been made to get it done.”
Said Barrett Duke, specialist in gambling issues for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, “The Michigan referendum offers us the opportunity to demonstrate that gambling can be kicked out of our communities again just as it was 100 years ago. If the people of Michigan succeed in their petition drive and show up at the polls in November, they will prove that we do not have to tolerate the presence of gambling in any part of our country. The efforts in Michigan will serve as a model for every other state in the union.”
Data released by Gray’s organization concerning the impact legalized gambling has on society, includes:
— In states with two or more forms of legalized gambling, 1.5 percent to 3 percent of the population will become compulsive gamblers (Michigan already has a state lottery).
— Up to 11 percent of teenagers will become compulsive gamblers.
— About 25 percent of compulsive gamblers recently surveyed said they had attempted suicide.
— More than 98 percent of compulsive gamblers commit crimes.
— A full 100 percent of compulsive gamblers become physically abusive, especially toward children.
— About 75 percent of compulsive gamblers commit felonies because of gambling.
— About 20 percent of homeless people are compulsive gamblers.
Gray stressed the statistics are conservative by research standards.
“It is our hope that the people of Michigan will get involved,” Reno said. “We need to always do everything we can to keep legalized gambling out before it gets in.” He said the casinos will exert tremendous political influence on state officials (one investigation by a national magazine said the gambling industry has contributed more than $100 million in the last five years to state governments responsible for regulating gambling) and that states become “hooked” on the revenue.
“Once gambling gets into a state, it is hard to extricate,” he said.
Hinkle is a freelance writer in Louisville, Ky.