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Tenn. enacts ERLC-endorsed animal fighting bill

NASHVILLE (BP) — Tennessee has enacted an anti-animal fighting bill supported by the Southern Baptist Convention’s ethics entity.

[QUOTE@right@180=“It’s not just a step away from the cruelty and savagery of animal fighting.” – Russell Moore]In a public ceremony Wednesday (June 11), Gov. Bill Haslam signed a measure overwhelmingly approved by the state legislature that increases penalties for attendance at an animal fight and for taking a child to such a fight. The signing was ceremonial, because Haslam actually had signed the bill into law May 8. The law goes into effect July 1.

The Tennessee Senate voted 24-1 for the legislation in March, while the House of Representatives passed it by 90-2 in April.

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), commended the new law as “an important step in our communities.”

“It’s not just a step away from the cruelty and savagery of animal fighting; it is a move away from the exploitation of the poor through expanded gambling,” said Moore, who attended the June 11 signing ceremony.

“By raising the penalties for animal fighting, Tennessee is making a strong statement that it takes seriously both the humane treatment of animals and the dignity of those whom organized gambling would like to exploit,” he said in written comments for Baptist Press.

The new law is designed 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.

It increases an offense for being present at the location of an animal fight to a Class A misdemeanor, which carries punishments of less than a year in jail and/or a fine of up to $2,500. The measure also makes causing a child under 18 years of age to attend an animal fight into a Class A misdemeanor. The minimum fine is $1,000, while the maximum fine is $2,500.

A provision to elevate a second or subsequent offense of participation in cockfighting to a Class E felony was removed by amendment in the Senate.

Previously, being a spectator at a cockfight carried maximum punishments of only a $50 fine and/or a 30-day jail sentence. Under the former law, being a spectator at a dogfight resulted in a maximum $500 fine and and/or six months in jail.

In a March letter, Moore told Speaker of the House Beth Harwell the ERLC strongly supported the legislation. “[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 said in the letter.

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

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

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, said Reasa Currier, the Humane Society’s strategic initiatives manager for Faith Outreach, in comments to BP in March.

An “increasing and pronounced link between organized crime and animal fighting” has been observed in Tennessee, Currier said.

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