Originally created 08/09/99

Churches unite against video poker



COLUMBIA -- From pulpits in the tiniest chapels to mega-churches, a broad coalition of the state's major denominations has launched a grass-roots campaign to ban video gambling in the Nov. 2 referendum.

"I think in November, there's going to be such a movement that people are going to be surprised," said the Rev. Wayne Bryan, executive minister of the South Carolina Christian Action Council.

The council, a statewide public-policy agency for 16 Christian denominations, has long been active in the battle against video gambling. The Rev. Bryan said he receives requests daily to lead voter mobilization workshops.

The issue also has reunited Southern Baptists and the Christian Action Council. The groups parted ways two years ago after Confederate flag disagreements.

Different faiths can unite against gambling -- unlike the Confederate flag -- because video gambling "assaults the theology" of all, said the Rev. Bryan, a Presbyterian minister.

The largest video gambling operator in the state, Fred Collins, doesn't see it that way.

"I am so sick and tired of politicians and moralists telling me what's right for me," Mr. Collins said.

He said there could be a conflict of interest with church involvement in the referendum because some polling sites are located in churches.

"They wouldn't like some of the polling places to be at the State Line casino, would they?" Mr. Collins said.

Mr. Collins, a Southern Baptist, said he doesn't "care how many right-wing religionists" get involved in the fight against him. He doesn't expect voters to forgo $200 million in new taxes that could help the state overhaul its education system.

Religious involvement will play a pivotal role in the video gambling battle, said Maryjane Osa, an assistant professor of government and international studies at the University of South Carolina.

Ms. Osa, who studies social movements and religious organizations, said the churches see themselves as defenders of morality and social mores.

"The profits are all on the side of the operators, and the costs are incurred by families, churches and their communities," Ms. Osa said.

Federal election regulations allow churches to participate in activities that influence legislation as long as their involvement isn't a substantial part of their overall activity in a given year.

South Carolina denominations plan individual campaigns instead of one centralized effort to get around those limitations, with the Christian Action Council serving as a touchstone for churches to stay informed about what other churches are doing through a toll-free hot line.