WASHINGTON -- The moral opposition to gambling might be gasping its last breaths.
As more and more states turn to casinos and gambling to fill shrinking budget coffers, the voices of the religious opposition are struggling to convince people that it is morally wrong.
It's an uphill fight: A recent study by Ellison Research showed that 70 percent of Americans do not consider gambling to be a sin.
"It's not acceptable in today's society to present arguments based solely on religion or morals," said I. Nelson Rose, who teaches gambling law at the Whittier Law School in California.
Thirty years ago, gamblers had to try their luck with scratch-off tickets or at casinos in Atlantic City or Las Vegas. Today, only two states -- Utah and Hawaii -- do not have some form of legalized gambling, according to the American Gaming Association. The other 48 have anteed up for tribal casinos, commercial casinos, racetracks, jai alai or lotteries.
Forty-three states have lotteries, mostly marketed as voluntary taxes for education, and 12 states now have commercial casinos.
Gambling contributes around 5 percent to state budgets -- double what it was five years ago, said the Rev. Richard McGowan, a Boston College professor and author of "The Gambling Debate," published in January.
In some states, it contributes much more, McGowan said -- 11 percent in Louisiana and 18 percent in South Dakota. Experts say the gambling industry is growing and shows no signs of stopping any time soon.
"The church's opposition to gambling has not been widely effective," said the Rev. Tom Grey, spokesman for the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, "because (the church is) not relevant in an irreverent age."
Grey, who fought gambling for years from the pulpit as a United Methodist pastor, said the moral argument that gambling is a sin is too easily swept aside as impeding the personal freedom of others.
As a result, Grey's anti-gambling coalition avoids explicit mentions of religion, and presents more economically grounded arguments that center around addiction, bankruptcy and crime, Grey said.
"There's a cost when people lose -- they chase the loss," Grey said. "It's the government's dirty little secret. The house always wins."
Some states, such as Kansas, Maryland, Kentucky and Massachusetts, are in various stages of trying to expand the gambling options they already have.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, both Democrats, recently proposed bills to open commercial casinos, citing jobs and more money for economic development, education and other state programs as the payoffs.
"Legislators and governors have hard decisions to make," said Frank Fahrenkopf, executive director of the American Gaming Association, which represents commercial casinos. "And gaming is capital-intensive and produces jobs."
In a 2007 Gallup survey, 63 percent of Americans had no moral qualms about gambling. Earlier this year, Gallup found that 65 percent of Americans participated in some form of gambling, 46 percent played the lottery and 24 percent had been to a casino.
"Problem gamblers" -- those who become addicted, go broke or turn to criminal activity -- only make up 1 percent of those who gamble, Fahrenkopf said.
Still, Fahrenkopf noted, gambling is not "a panacea," pointing to Detroit as an example of a gambling city that has struggled to turn around. The problem there was a lack of viable businesses around the casinos, he said.
Many states that are expanding gambling are just trying to keep up with their neighbors.
Kansas recently enacted legislation to become the first state to have state-owned casinos. The state Lottery Commission is considering developers to build and operate four state-run casinos -- in part to keep money from flowing to casinos in neighboring Oklahoma and Missouri.
The Kansas casinos are projected to rake in $200 million a year in revenue, said Sally Lunsford, spokeswoman for the Kansas commission. About 2 percent of the take will go to developing programs for problem gambling, she said.
Money, she said, has to come from somewhere. "There's not a whole heck of a lot of people who are raising their hands, saying, `Please, raise my taxes!'" she said.
Still, whether or not her voice is being heard, Barbara Knickelbein is not stopping her fight against gambling, even though her organization, No Casinos Maryland, changed its name from Religious Communities United in Opposition to Casino-Style Gambling, as it was known when it launched in 1995.
A voter referendum that would put 15,000 slot machines at various racetracks and other locations will be on the Maryland ballot in November. The projected $600 million that the slots would produce would be unsteady, and an unfair tax on the poor, Knickelbein said.
The organization focuses its opposition on morality or economics, depending on the audience, she said, but religious groups have a stake in the outcome.
"It's the churches who are going to have to pick up the pieces," she said, "when families are torn apart by gambling."
Gambling opponents say moral arguments fall flat
By GREG TROTTER
Religion News Service