Magazine article The Christian Century

Lonely Crusade: Fighting the Gambling Industry

Magazine article The Christian Century

Lonely Crusade: Fighting the Gambling Industry

Article excerpt

IN 1992, THE COUNTY board in Galena, Illinois, voted to allow the Silver Eagle, a riverboat casino, to cast anchor in the nearby Mississippi River. Tom Grey, pastor of the United Methodist church in town, was stunned. No one had asked the citizens of Jo Daviess County if they wanted gambling. No one had even suggested that hearings or discussions be held before passing the proposal. Grey quickly rallied opponents of gambling and organized a referendum on the issue. But although 81 percent of the voters said they didn't want gambling in the town, the referendum was only an advisory vote. The Silver Eagle lowered its gangplank and opened for business.

The proliferation of riverboat casinos in recent decades follows a familiar pattern. Casino officials say they are simply expanding a practice that the states condoned when they adopted lotteries. They offer legislators the prospect of apparently painless tax revenue, and remind their detractors that people who gamble do so willingly. They market casinos as another version of a theme park, a Busch Gardens, a Disneyland or other entertainment opportunity that provides jobs and tax money.

Grey was not moved by any of these appeals. After the Galena referendum failed to stop the riverboat's arrival, he decided to challenge the casino industry on the grounds that casino gambling is a threat to the quality of community life. While the casinos serve certain economic interests, said Grey, they do not serve the broad interests of the community. Casinos claim they generate jobs and taxes, but opponents note an increase in gambling addiction, bankruptcies and crime. Grey gathered shop owners, church people and homemakers, then brought in Bishop Sheldon Duecker, who quoted the United Methodist Social Principles and called gambling a "menace to society." That earned the group a conversation with the local state representative, who later called the bishop "an agent of the underworld."

Meanwhile, word of Grey's interest and expertise in fighting the Galena casino spread. Struggling antigambling groups in Illinois contacted him, and before long he was building a network. Arlington Heights Racetrack, located in a suburb of Chicago, was in danger of losing revenue to a proposed Elgin riverboat, and hoped to stem that loss by supporting Grey's opposition to riverboats. For a brief time there was a coalition between the racing interests (breeders, owners, trainers, track owners) and the antigambling coalition. But the relationship ended when the track owner began to lobby for slot machines and announced plans to build a gambling "boat in a moat" at his racetrack.

Many of the antigambling groups are based in conservative evangelical churches. The evangelicals' interest has translated into appearances on the Christian television station in Chicago and interviews with national televangelists. Grey and the conservatives agree in their insistence on "no expansion of gambling," although the evangelicals are against it on moral grounds while Grey's opposition is based on "quality of life." The association with the Religious Right has cost Grey some support among liberals, who believe that by working with the right, Grey legitimates their position on other issues, such as abortion and gay rights.

Grey now leads the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling (NCALG). In 1994 a call went out to try to generate some pressure against a growing number of states that were trying to solve their tax problems by introducing lotteries, riverboat casinos, video-slot and poker machines, and offtrack betting. (The video-slot machines are especially attractive to young people, who are drawn to the enhanced video games.) Grey emerged from the meeting with the support of more activists--individuals and small groups that had been fighting lonely battles with meager resources.

With the blessing of his bishop, Grey left the pastorate to organize on two fronts--in the churches of Illinois and with other antigambling groups around the country. …

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