Churches Credited with Stopping Alabama Lottery

BIRMINGHAM, Ala.—Dixie has taken a two-step away from the games of chance.

Alabama voters on Oct. 12 rejected a lottery by a 54% to 46% vote. Two days later, the South Carolina Supreme Court effectively abolished all video poker, starting July 1, 2000.

Bill Thompson, a professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and a gaming expert, told ABC News, “This is the biggest anti-gambling week in American history. This is something the anti-gambling people can really celebrate. It's their biggest victory.”

Ministers Lead Charge

In late August, Alabama appeared ready to accept a state-run lottery. Polls showed a 20-point advantage in favor of the lottery. Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman waged a campaign stressing how proceeds from the lottery would go toward education scholarships.

But religious leaders pointed out that there was more to the issue than reaping new funds. Many pastors told church members that the lottery was wrong and would shatter families.

Republican Lt. Gov. Steve Windom said, “The ministers have made this happen — encouraging their congregrations to come together and vote against the lottery.”

The Rev. Joe Bob Mizzell said that no issue better united so many ministers from different denominations.

“Even the abortion issue — the sanctity of human life — has not come as close to bringing denominations together,” Mizzell said.

“We saw the conservative evangelicals and the black churches really unite,” said Michael Bowman, director of state and local issues for the Family Research Council.

He told the Register that “liberals are against it because the lottery steals from the poor and gives to the rich, and conservatives are against it because they think it is immoral.”

While Catholics and Jews did no play a strong public role in the debate, “a majority of them voted against it,” said Father Russell Biven, pastor of Our Savior Church in Mobile.

Supporters of the lottery emphasized that when Alabama citizens purchased lottery tickets in neighboring states like Georgia they are contributing to scholarships for Georgia students. Why not keep that money in Alabama for Alabama students? they asked.

In the end, voters were more convinced that the lottery would hurt children more than it would help them.

“The lottery is harmful to children,” said Bowman, citing a study released by the American Academy of Pedriatics that show 5% of adolescents have gambling addictions. When parents become addicted, families are often shattered.

Video Deluge in South Carolina

More than 34,000 video poker machines are scattered throughout South Carolina — twice as many as in any other state, including Nevada. But this industry has lost favor in the court of public opinion.

The neon flashes of the omnipresent machines became a sign of decline to many. Other signs were a rise in crime and a perception that more people were becoming addicted to gambling.

The case of a 10-day-old baby who died in a sweltering car as her mother was dropping coins in a slot machine seemed to epitomize the situation for some.

The National Gambling Impact Study Commission early this year issued the first major national study on gambling in 20 years. It demonstrated that gaming produces little economic benefit and comes with large social costs. “They basically said it's a parasitic industry,” Bowman said.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “Games of chance (card games, etc.) or wagers are not in themselves contrary to justice. They become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others” (No. 2413).

Polls in South Carolina showed 61% in favor of banning the games. The Legislature approved a ballot initiative in which the voters would decide the fate of legalized poker.

But before residents could vote in the November election, the South Carolina Supreme Court declared the referendum an unconstitutional delegation of lawmaking by the Legislature.

Because of the wording of the original bill that called for the referendum, the court's action effectively bans the game as of July 1 unless the Legislature decides to re-legalize video poker. “No lawmaker will want to take up this issue in an election year,” said Bowman.

Reversal of Trend

The recent rejections of gambling marked a change for the South. For more than 10 years, Democrats have clung to a pro-gambling position to slow the region's drift into the Republican column.

Democratic consultant James Carville used the lottery to get Wallace Wilkinson elected governor of Kentucky in 1987. Zell Miller successfully copied the tactic three years later in Georgia. Democratic challengers in South Carolina and Alabama unseated Republican governors on pro-lottery planks in 1998.