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Md. Pastors See Peril In Slots

Approval in State House Mobilizes Congregations

By Joshua Partlow and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 7, 2005; Page B01

The Rev. Joseph H. Thomas stood before his Baptist congregation in Suitland yesterday morning and painted a lurid picture of the dangers of a looming temptation.

He spoke of what he believes is a social scourge poised to afflict those who can least afford it, an insidious attraction ready to pull the righteous down the path of addiction.

The Rev. Jonathan Weaver, pastor of Greater Mt. Nebo AME Church, left, hugs Prince George's County Council Chairman Samuel H. Dean at a rally at the church. (Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

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"It's like I told them," Thomas said, recalling his discussion at the 90-member Solid Rock Missionary Baptist Church in Prince George's County, "it's very possible our children could be in a situation where they could save their lunch money to put it in that little slot machine."

Ten days after Maryland's House of Delegates narrowly approved a bill to legalize slot machine gambling, many of the state's religious leaders have redoubled their opposition, preaching about the dangers of slots at rallies, in the halls of Annapolis and from their pulpits.

On a day some were calling the "Stop Slots Sabbath," sermons and church bulletins in denominations across Maryland urged parishioners to contact lawmakers about the legislation. In the afternoon, hundreds gathered at Greater Mount Nebo AME Church in Bowie to energize the slots opposition.

"This is not a Republican or a Democratic issue as far as we're concerned; this is indeed a moral issue," said the Rev. Jonathan Weaver, pastor of Greater Mount Nebo. "Slots harm families. They hurt marriages, and they hurt neighborhoods."

The mission, as Weaver and other religious leaders see it, is to mobilize their congregations to convince elected officials that the churches will not tolerate slots, at a time when legalization of the machines may be closer to reality than at any moment in the past two years.

Weaver has harnessed the power of the Collective Banking Group -- a 200-church coalition that, until now, had focused on helping the religious community secure loans -- to help advocate his cause. He tells his congregation of 2,000 at Greater Mount Nebo to call, write letters, send e-mails or buttonhole their elected officials in Annapolis.

"Storms will come into everybody's life; if we're not careful, one of those storms could be the addictive nature of gambling," he said. "There are some storms that we don't have to go through."

Patricia Matthews, president of the Washington Conference for the African Methodist Episcopal Church, has set up what she calls a "rapid response team" to fight the approval of slots. Her group has about 20 members working phone banks and sending e-mails to get congregation members to speak out against gambling.

"There's a slogan: 'What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas,' and as far as I'm concerned, that's where [slots] can stay," she said. "I believe in a higher power, and regardless of what it seems like today, if we pray and work hard, slots will be kept out."

Since his election, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has pushed for slots as a way to generate revenue for education and other state priorities. He failed in his two prior attempts, and he hailed the passage of the House bill this year as a "big deal." But the House and Senate remain at loggerheads about details of the legislation.

The House bill would allow 9,500 video lottery terminals at four locations, in Anne Arundel, Frederick, Harford and Dorchester counties. The Senate bill calls for 15,500 machines at seven venues, including four horse tracks. Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said last week that the legalization push had stalled as the two sides had not reached an agreement on the differences.

For those pushing to keep slots out of Maryland, the remaining weeks of the session have become critical. Throughout the debate, religious leaders have played a key role, said Aaron Meisner, coordinating chairman for the lobbying group StopSlotsMaryland. The religious opposition unites people in more conservative rural jurisdictions such as Cecil County, he said, as well as more liberal Democrats who see slots as a regressive tax against low-income working families.

"Then there are the African American churches, particularly in Baltimore City, that are on the front lines of a lot of addiction problems," he said. "They know what addiction is about, and they've . . . made sure they're heard in Annapolis."

At Greater Mount Nebo yesterday, politicians and preachers breathed fiery rhetoric against slots. The Rev. Perry Smith, pastor of First Baptist Church of North Brentwood, who led efforts to integrate Prince George's County in the 1960s, said: "Slots breed crime, prostitution, and it robs people of the wherewithal to support their families."

Smith issued an open rebuke of some county lawmakers who have been silent on the issue. "If you don't stand up and be counted on this issue, then we will sit you down in November."

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