Monday, January 14, 2002

Church tangled in gambling debate

User of bingo and games is opposed to state expansion

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FRANKFORT — Go to a Roman Catholic church festival in the Tristate and the odds are good you'll be able to gamble.

        Big 6 wheels, pull tabs, five-card stud, blackjack, dice games and even craps are common at many of the summer and Thanksgiving festivals parishes use to raise money for their schools, charities and parish operations.

        Regular year-round bingos are also standard at many churches.

        Yet even with that dependence on gaming to raise money, Kentucky's largest Catholic organization is an active opponent against a move to expand gambling to the state's thoroughbred racetracks, an issue likely to go before the Kentucky General Assembly.

        The church's stance comes against a backdrop of quiet criticism that Catholics are being disingenuous if not hypocritical by fighting gambling expansion while relying on gambling.

        Jane Chiles, executive director of the Louisville-based Catholic Conference of Kentucky, said the church is not raising moral or religious objections to gambling.

        And while Catholic schools and churches do depend on gaming for revenue, Ms. Chiles said her argument against expanded gambling is based on what's best for the state.

        “We are not saying don't cut into our turf. We're not saying expanded gambling is immoral,” Ms. Chiles said Friday.

        “What we are questioning is: Is it a responsible move on the part of state government to fund necessary, critical programs through a source of revenue that requires Kentuckians to go out and gamble?”

        The legislature hopes to use proceeds from electronic slot machines — known as Video Lottery Terminals, or VLTs — at racetracks to fund items such as education and health care, lawmakers have said.

        In 1999, people spent a record $564 million on charitable gambling in Kentucky, the fourth-highest amount in the nation.

        The state's lottery brought in $583 million last year; horse racing brought in $631 million, according to the Kentucky Department of Charitable Gaming.

        Charitable gaming totaled $30.3 million in Kenton County, $7.2 million in Campbell County and $5.8 million in Boone County, according to the state.

        The Catholic Conference is the public policy arm of the state's four Roman Catholic bishops: Louisville Archbishop Thomas C. Kelley; Owensboro Bishop John J. McRaith; Lexington Bishop J. Kendrick Williams; and Covington Bishop Robert W. Muench, who is leaving the Diocese of Covington in March to become bishop of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, La.

        The conference is part of a larger effort to defeat gaming called Citizens Against Gambling Expansion, or CAGE, a group of mostly religious leaders led by the Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches in Lexington.

        CAGE is using the Internet, newsletters, direct lobbying of lawmakers and messages from the pulpit to make its case against gaming.

        No legislation on expanded gambling was filed through the first week of the legislative session that opened Jan. 8, but a measure is expected.

        The thoroughbred industry is pushing hard for legislation that would allow the installation of VLTs at racetracks.

        Racetrack operators and others in the industry say they need gaming to compete with riverboat casinos operating just across Kentucky's borders in Indiana and Illinois, and racetracks in West Virginia and elsewhere that offer slots to bettors.

        An estimate done last year by the Kentucky Lottery Corp., which could end up overseeing the slots if they are approved, found that gaming could generate $200 million or more in new revenue for the state.

        A slowing economy has left Kentucky facing a $700 million deficit, the largest shortfall in state history.

        Ms. Chiles said lawmakers should look for better ways to deal with the state's financial woes, such as reforming Kentucky's tax code, than gambling.

        Others in Frankfort, including Gov. Paul Patton, agree that the tax code needs overhauling and doing so could provide addition- al consistent revenue to the state. But because true tax reform would likely require some tax increases toward a goal of broader tax equity, there has been little political will among lawmakers to tackle the subject.

        In Ohio, about half of the 231 parishes in the 19 counties of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati have church festivals, said spokesman Dan Andriacco.

        Others use different methods of gaming to raise money, he said.

        “It's fair to say that church festivals, Monte Carlo nights, raffles and bingos are significant sources of revenue for many of our parishes and schools,” Mr. Andriacco said.

        If casino-style gambling came to Kentucky some of those events could suffer in attendance, he said.

        This is not the first time area Catholics have battled against gambling.

        The church helped defeat a 1996 constitutional amendment in Ohio that would have allowed riverboat casinos in Cincinnati and other cities.

        And the Kentucky bishops came out in 1999 to oppose expanded gambling when Mr. Patton floated the idea.

        It quickly died for lack of support from elements of the horse-racing industry, which is now solidly pushing for slots.

        But some lawmakers and horse-industry representatives have been quietly criticizing the Catholic Church's opposition because of its reliance on gaming.

        Several legislators and members of the racing industry were approached to comment for this article, but none would for the record.

        However, many talked privately about their frustration over the church's stance on gambling.

        Ms. Chiles said the money the church raises through gaming helps sustain Catholic schools.

        “We've looked at this issue ... and without bingo we would lose up to 30 schools that rely on that money,” she said, adding bingos and festivals are limited in their hours of operation while casinos are open year-round.

        Ms. Chiles also said charitable gaming is legal in Kentucky and that several organizations, including fire departments and even public schools, use bingo to raise money.

        Some Catholics want the church to get away from its reliance on gaming.

        In 1996 Bishop Muench suggested schools no longer use gambling to raise money at church festivals.

        At first several Northern Kentucky Catholic parishes complied, but most went back to gambling after realizing the difficulty of raising money without it.

        The Rev. Joseph Brink, pastor at St. Mary's Church in Alexandria, said that while the parish offers bingo, he is trying to move the church away from depending on gaming money.

        “I'm not against gambling in general. I don't mind going to Las Vegas now and then,” Father Brink said.

        “I have more of a problem with a city or state government having to support education or roads through gambling.

        “I think that is fundamentally flawed, and I don't think churches should be funded with gambling, either,” he said.

        Attendance at the St. Mary's bingo has been down in recent years, which Father Brink attributes to the opening of the casino riverboats in Indiana six years ago.


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