Two months before the referendum on a state lottery in Alabama, Pastor Ed Litton wondered how actively his 3,700-member First Baptist Church of North Mobile should oppose the issue.
Then he read about a church in Biloxi, Mississippi, that voted to sell its building to Beau Rivage Casino. "What I saw is a clear message that gambling ultimately corrupts even the most sacred institutions," Litton says.
Disturbed by the incident, Litton convinced his church's finance committee to give $25,000 slated for a new church van to an anti-lottery campaign. That donation proved to be a wise investment as Alabama voters on October 12 rejected a state lottery 54 to 46 percent. Alabama is only the fourth state—after Arkansas, North Dakota, and Oklahoma—to block a state lottery.
The surprising defeat is being credited to the efforts of Alabama's Christian community, which united support across racial and denominational lines. "The reason we won is because of the church," says Jim Cooper, a deacon at an evangelical Presbyterian church and chairman of Citizens Against Legalized Lottery (CALL), a political action committee organized to fight the lottery.
Churches and their ministers sponsored anti-lottery rallies, preached sermons against gambling, produced signs and T-shirts with anti-gambling slogans, and held round-the-clock prayer vigils on election day.
"It was a spiritual movement that took place in this state unlike anything I've ever seen," says Gary Palmer, president of the Alabama Family Alliance, who took an unpaid leave to campaign against the lottery.
$150 Million For Education:
Before the election, ministers considered themselves in a David-versus-Goliath battle with pro-lottery forces.
Governor Don Siegelman was elected in November 1998 by promising a state lottery to raise $150 million for college scholarships, pre-kindergarten education, and computers in every classroom. In a state eager to repair its underfunded educational system yet reluctant to reform its tax structure, Siegelman touted the lottery as Alabama's best chance to improve its schools.
Polls predicted the lottery passing by an overwhelming margin—as much as 60 percent, according to one survey.
Pro-gambling forces had three times as much money as their opponents to push their agenda. Lottery ads argued that millions of Alabama dollars being spent on Georgia and Florida lotteries and Mississippi casinos should stay in the state to benefit Alabama's school children. Add to that a Bible Belt culture that has become soft on gambling, and it was almost a sure bet that voters would approve a lottery.
But some in the evangelical community believed the lottery could be defeated with a broad-based campaign. While Christians would accept a message based solely on the evils of gambling, those outside of churches had to be convinced in other ways. "I felt all along if the people were properly educated they would vote against it," says Palmer, who used a study on the social and economic effects of gambling to support his position.
Gambling opponents attacked the idea that an education lottery would benefit the poor, who are more likely than higher wage-earners to play the lottery. For example, the National Gambling Impact Study Commission reports that people who earn less than $25,000 a year are four times more likely to become pathological gamblers than those who make $50,00 or more per year.
Palmer and Cooper were instrumental in raising more than $1 million for the anti-lottery campaign and encouraging churches to speak out against the lottery.
At first some churches were hesitant. "Many churches were very nervous about it because we had been beaten over the head with a bogus concept of separation of church and state," says Litton, whose church was one of the first to contribute $25,000.
Because Internal Revenue Service tax codes allow churches to contribute up to five percent of their general-fund budget to political causes, several of Alabama's larger congregations also anted-up thousands of dollars to CALL. The funds paid for radio, newspaper, and television ads, including one showing political cronies dividing lottery dollars in a smoke-filled room.
The anti-lottery cause also benefited from some timely news items. A scandal involving fixed speeding tickets and some of Siegelman's top aides fostered further mistrust between voters and public officials.
And a newspaper article stirred many ministers into action. Throughout the campaign, Siegelman tried to push the lottery without offending people who believed gambling was wrong. But an Associated Press article said Siegelman was "asking Alabama voters to ignore their church leaders and get in line with other Southern states that are bucking the Bible Belt image and cashing in on gambling to help pay for schools and college scholarships," which weakened Siegelman's tightrope. "That really fired up a lot of churches who were kind of sitting on the fence at that point," Palmer says.
After the victory, critics now wonder if churches will be as vocal for education as they were against the lottery. "I think there's a real credibility issue at stake here," says Jim Evans, pastor of a suburban Birmingham Baptist church and director of the Interfaith Alliance of Alabama. He believes churches will respond to the challenge. "It's almost as if Christian people, in opposing the lottery and thinking through all the implications, really sort of discovered how social and political arrangements impact poor people, and I'm thinking there may be some follow-through."
Briarwood Presbyterian pastor Harry Reeder III, whose suburban Birmingham church gave $75,000 to support the anti-lottery effort, agrees. "What God gave us was not just a victory to restrain moral decline. What he gave us was an open door for transformation," Reeder says.
But while the evangelical community enjoyed unparalleled support in opposing the lottery, it will be hard-pressed to reach a consensus on the best way to fund education.
Cooper supports Lieutenant Governor Steve Windom's plan to give tuition and fee waivers to college freshmen who attend in-state schools and meet certain criteria, including at least a 3.0 grade average, a minimum 20 score on the American College Test, and a household income of $50,000 or less. "This helps those who are truly in need, which the church ought to be for 100 percent," Cooper says.
But many Christians who opposed the lottery may not support the education plan with its current income cap, says Palmer, who believes the ceiling should be set at $75,000.
The Christian community may have to bend a little on this one, Cooper adds. "I'm a realist and eventually I would like to see the cap removed altogether," he says. "But I think this is a good place to start."
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