Senate panel passes bill allowing church gambling

COLUMBIA --- Gambling for charity, in church of all places, would be legal in South Carolina under a bill approved by a Senate panel Thursday.

The legislation would let churches and other nonprofit groups hold card and other casino games to raise money, exempting them from South Carolina's 200-year-old law that prohibits dice and card games.

Though the law is rarely enforced, poker's rise in popularity has led to a few arrests recently in large cash poker games.

The bill discussed Thursday specifically says five-card draw, Texas Hold'em and seven-card stud should be allowed for charities and churches.

"It's a money-making opportunity for nonprofits," said state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg.

Mason Hardy, the executive director of the South Carolina Association of Nonprofit Organizations, said groups want to raise money through events such as casino nights.

"What we'd not like to see is gambling halls for nonprofits or those types of things," Mr. Hardy said.

The legislation also was amended to lift limits on how often nonprofits can run bingo games. Current law limits games to five times a year.

The panel also agreed to a constitutional amendment that makes it legal for churches and other nonprofits to hold raffles.

Mr. Hardy told the senators about a newspaper photo showing women holding up a quilt they planned to raffle for charity.

"Technically, that's illegal. But who's going to turn in the little old ladies who made the quilt for homeless children or whatever they made it for?" he asked.

Mr. Hutto said nonprofits stopped holding raffles after the state created its lottery and the South Carolina attorney general issued opinions saying the groups couldn't hold games of chance.

"They don't want to engage in illegal activities," Mr. Hutto said.

The constitutional amendment would need to be approved by South Carolina voters in November.

If it passed, legislators would set limits on who could hold raffles and how frequently they could be held.