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Gambling tide may be turning, but battles remain, leaders say

HANOVER, Ill. (BP)–After five years of battling legalized gambling, Tom Grey said the tide is turning against the pastime that once was predicted to be the “wave of the future.”
“When I started in 1992, gambling was called a great force of history,” said the executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling (NCALG), which was founded in 1994. “It’s a major victory when they aren’t expanding anymore.”
However, anti-gambling forces cannot relax their efforts, said Grey, who hopes to see the legalization of gambling rolled back in certain states.
At present, only a few states have no form of legalized gambling. Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia have lotteries, while more than two dozen have casinos.
Fighting the influence of gambling, which claimed $586 billion in wagers last year, will only happen with the leadership, commitment and power of Christians, said the NCALG director.
The church’s resources and vision are necessary to convince people to fight, Grey said. He said it requires a very intentional, educational campaign to inform the public about gambling’s dangers.
According to the Maryland-based organization, studies show that for every dollar gambling produces for a regional economy, three dollars are lost because of economic and social costs. The NCALG said it also damages local businesses, because every $100 spent in a slot machine is $100 that won’t be spent in restaurants, theaters or stores.
Anti-gambling forces continue to register wins at the ballot box, said Grey, pointing to the rejection of casinos by the Navajo Indian tribe on Nov. 4. In Virginia, three local-option elections to legalize off-track betting also were defeated, he said.
Yet, the NCALG director said it is not time to relax, noting that gambling interests continue to press their cause even in states where they lose.
For example, although Arkansas voters turned down casinos last year, there is another drive to put it on the 1998 ballot, according to Walter Abbott, NCALG’s information director.
Abbott said battles are continuing in many other states, such as Tennessee, where supporters of a proposed lottery argue it can fund education; Illinois, where gambling interests are pushing for dockside gambling, land-based casinos and slot machines at race tracks; and Oklahoma, with gamblers seeking to add slot machines at race tracks.
Churches must get involved in the issue even though many pastors think it is too controversial, said Grey, who lives near Chicago.
“If the battle is fought from the sanctuary we will lose,” he said. “This has to do with who will control our communities — the people or special interests. I think the church has a role. The question is whether the church will be actively involved.”
While every effort must be bathed in prayer, he said, action is necessary. In states facing gambling issues, opponents need to organize forums, town meetings, press conferences, telephone contacts, and leaflet distribution — whether by mail or door-to- door — just like a political campaign, he said.
However, Paul Jones, executive director of Mississippi Baptists’ Christian Action Commission, cautioned those who oppose gambling can’t adopt every tactic of the opposition. Whether time or money, anti-gambling forces must use their resources wisely, he said.
“Our challenge is to capture the hearts and minds of people,” he said. “The church doesn’t function as the competition does, thank God. When we spend all our time lobbying, we get away from our purpose and lose our strength.”
“You can’t match them dollar for dollar,” agreed Dan Ireland, executive director of the Alabama Citizens Action Program. He cited more than $16 million spent by casino interests in a referendum in Florida, compared to about $1.5 million by opponents. Still, the casinos lost by a 63-37 percent margin.
“The thing they don’t have is the people,” Ireland said. “We have a church community and other ways, such as billboards, signs, men’s organizations, denominational publications and ministerial associations. There’s a good market you don’t have to pay for.”
However, there is often subtle opposition to fighting the gambling wars, Jones said. While few church members will speak out directly, he often hears there are other issues, like poverty, that should be addressed. Others say the church must focus on evangelism and missions, he said.
“We also have to deal with the whole issue of, ‘Shouldn’t the church back out of this and leave it up to each individual?'” he said. “I get a lot of pressure to do this. (People say) it’s the priesthood of the believer. But don’t we have a responsibility to say, ‘This is something that can hurt you’?”
Anti-gambling forces need to be follow two other vital practices, Jones said:
— Using reliable statistics and other data. Occasionally he receives mail from groups with deliberately “skewed” information. Gambling opponents gain credibility by acknowledging it has some seemingly positive aspects, which gives them a chance to mention its negative side, he said.
— Getting to know the principals, such as casino operators, legislators and others. Becoming personally acquainted with key opposition leaders has given him the opportunity to organize state hearings on gambling, divorce, alcohol sales and many other issues over the past 16 years, he said.

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  • Ken Walker