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Ministers express aversion to slots

March 03, 2003|by MARLO BARNHART

marlob@herald-mail.com

The gambling world has a saying that "the house always wins."

But what many church leaders in Washington County fear is that the losers will be the people of Maryland, both financially and spiritually.

The United Methodist Church urged its Maryland ministers to preach against slot machines Sunday, as the religious movement against Gov. Robert Ehrlich's gambling proposal began to gain momentum.

"I hope it rallies the troops, so to speak. The people in the pews need to get active on this issue. It's not too late," said the Rev. Erik Alsgaard, spokesman for the Baltimore-Washington conference of the United Methodist Church, of which Ehrlich is a member.

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The Rev. Mark Mooney, pastor of St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Smithsburg, said he's planning to touch on the issue next Sunday in a sermon titled, "Lent - What's In It For Me?"

Mooney said he will talk about the instant gratification that gambling promises but rarely fulfills. Even the government is jumping on that bandwagon, he said.

"The church used to tear down places where there was gambling," Mooney said, speaking on biblical references. "Now our government is asking the church to condone gambling."

The Rev. Lauren Lay, pastor of Shiloh United Methodist Church off Old Forge Road in Hagerstown, said she will take a different approach.

"I see this issue as one for discussion such as in the adult Sunday school venue, rather than from the pulpit," Lay said Sunday.

In addition to a bulletin to 700 United Methodist preachers, a council representing all 16 Christian denominations in Central Maryland sent a strongly worded anti-slots letter to state legislators this week.

"We believe it is wrong for our state to sponsor and reap revenues from a program that may harm its citizens," a letter from the Central Maryland Ecumenical Council reads.

The letter and the bulletins are part of a religious movement that is growing more vocal, as Ehrlich's proposal to bring 10,500 slot machines to four racetracks moves closer to a vote by the Maryland General Assembly.

The Methodist edict calls gambling "a menace to society and deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic and spiritual life and destructive of good government."

Ehrlich said Friday that his church and others have the right to oppose slots, but their position doesn't sway him.

"Obviously I have many pastors, many ministers - regardless of religion - who support slots," Ehrlich said.

Pastor Robert Brennan of Mt. Nebo United Methodist Church in Boonsboro said gambling is destructive to society and preys upon the low-income people who are looking for one shot to become wealthy and solve their problems.

"The people it costs the most are the ones who can afford it the least," Brennan said.

Brennan added there is a letter in the church newsletter regarding its stance on gambling, urging members to contact their legislators.

At Otterbein United Methodist Church in Hagerstown, the Rev. Steve Robison said he got the e-mail that said the denomination is not in favor of more gambling and urged its members to voice their opinions on the issue.

"Gambling is leading us down the wrong road," said the Rev. Wesley Scouten of St. Matthew's United Methodist Church in Hagerstown, who said he will approach the issue via the church's newsletter.

The gambling issue is the latest on which the Rev. Ken Valentine of Hagerstown's John Wesley United Methodist Church has been more than willing to pass along his stance to his congregation.

"I read the letter Sunday morning and have made our position quite clear in church and other settings," Valentine said. Gambling has just been added to the list, right after the church's opposition to the death penalty and war, he said.

Ehrlich's position is that revenue from slots is crucial to closing the budget's $1.8 billion shortfall.

But a letter from an ecumenical council says the slots plan is a "tempting quick fix but it comes at the expense of the poor and of gamblers whose addiction has inflicted pain on themselves and their families."

The one-page letter is signed by the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the Church of the Brethren, the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Diocese, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the United Methodist Church, American Baptist Churches of the South, the Baltimore Presbytery and the Church of Christ, Scientist.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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