Anti-gambling activist Tom Grey calls it a David and Goliath story.
The $330 billion gambling industry, which promotes casinos as the promised land of wealth, is being taken on by small bands of religiously motivated individuals who believe their neighbors are getting ripped off.If the gambling industry Goliath is getting stronger, so is David, according to Grey.
This spring, activists from 24 states and 10 faith groups met in Chicago to revive the National Coalition Against Organized Gambling. The national organization arose from burgeoning grass-roots movements opposing the spread of legalized gambling, said Grey, coalition spokesman from Galena, Ill.
"I think we have them right where we want them," says Grey, an anti-gambling advocate for the United Methodist Church.
There is nothing directly in the Bible about gambling, and some churches have sponsored various forms of chance such as bingo and raffles to bolster their budgets.
But there is a great leap from church bingo halls to casinos and riverboat gambling, say gaming opponents who have been able to build coalitions from the LDS to the Roman Catholic churches to oppose the spread of large-scale gambling operations.
"We drew a line. Tactically, you cannot eliminate all gambling," said Grey. "Americans love to have their right to freedom to sin."
If prohibition is not feasible, that does not mean most Americans want their communities to turn into the next Atlantic City or Las Vegas, advocates say.
In just the past year, the proliferation of casino gambling has stirred people in local churches from Wyoming to Ohio to organize opposition efforts, said William Evans, an adviser on government relations in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"It's been inspiring to watch this thing develop," Evans said.
In Missouri, Citizens for Life and Liberty, an anti-gambling group, works closely with religious groups in opposing casinos. They offer speakers to churches and even sent out proposed inserts for church bulletins where Bible verses against covetousness and idolatry are quoted under the headline "God's Word on Gambling."
"Churches all across the state have become activated," said Mark Andrews, chairman of the state group.
And in his home state of Illinois, religious leaders have helped stop the spread of casino gambling into Chicago, Grey said.
"We believe the tide has turned on gambling," he said.
But the growth of legalized gambling in states such as Mississippi, where since 1992 the number of casinos along the Gulf Coast has risen from one to 14, has left other church leaders less hopeful.
The Rev. Weston Ware, associate director of the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, says gambling is not the major issue in any denomination.
Ware said it may take 15 to 20 years before Americans treat the issues of how gambling robs poor families of needed income and contributes to child abuse the same way they have the problems associated with drunken driving and cigarettes.
"Probably, the realities of life are we'll have to see more people hurt by gambling," he said.
And one argument religious groups remain sensitive to is the charge that they are hypocritical opposing gambling when some churches sponsor bingo games or raffles.
The Rev. Stephen J. Sidorak Jr., executive director of the Christian Conference of Connecticut, said there is a major difference between church-sponsored games of chance and casino gambling.
Charitable gambling meets social needs, Sidorak said.
"The other is almost a pickpocket form of industry where money is taken from everyone's pocket and put in the hands of a few," he said.