When Del. J.W. (Billy) O'Brien Jr. proposed a state lottery four years ago, his colleagues in the Virginia General Assembly laughed.

When the Virginia Beach Democrat introduced the lottery bill again this year, they booed.

And today, for the fourth consecutive year, they killed his bill.

After the vote, O'Brien, whose name has become synonymous with the perennial lottery bill, shrugged his shoulders and drawled, "I'll keep putting it in."

Despite its unlucky numbers in the legislative voting game, the lottery proposal has become O'Brien's ticket to fame.

"It gets good ink," the former football coach says candidly.

For a six-term legislator who is chairman of the Interstate Cooperation Committee, a group that has considered but one bill in the past three years, that's a prime consideration.

It has also become a passion with O'Brien. He'll tell you about all the money it could bring into Virginia -- an estimated $225 million that he proposes using for education, programs for the elderly and cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

He'll tell you that survey after survey shows Virginians would favor a state lottery like those in Maryland, the District and the one to start in July in West Virginia. Besides, he notes, his bill merely authorizes a statewide referendum on the issue. The voters would have the ultimate decision.

He relates the story of the little store that squats at the end of a pier on the Potomac River in Charles County, Md., -- unreachable except by boat -- that sells $1.6 million in Maryland lottery tickets each year, mostly to Virginians. Money, he says, that could be kept in Virginia if the state had its own lottery.

But legislators also hear the other side of the story. Today they heard influential church leaders who packed a House committee room say that they believe they can sway voters back home to vote against selling lottery tickets.

The legislators heard the president of the Virginia Council of Churches warn that the lottery bill "is a moral issue -- it promotes the idea of getting something for nothing."

A Presbyterian minister said, "Parting the sucker from his dollar is not the job of government."

A Methodist preacher described a state lottery as "destructive to our lives," and perhaps an inducement for organized crime and other corruption.

And a spokesman for the Catholic Church noted that a lottery would do nothing more than "appeal to the human desire to get rich quick." To which O'Brien replied, "Any church that has bingo as a method of raising money hasn't got any business criticizing me."

In the end, members of the House General Laws Committee went the way of the church leaders, with 12 members voting to send the bill to the legislative graveyard and six supporting the proposal.

"Privately, folks may go around to a few cockfights or throw a dice from time to time," said Del. William T. Wilson (D-Alleghany). "But when the state of Virginia gets in the gambling business, you're taking a step in the wrong direction."

"It was the philosophy of the committee," said O'Brien. "I don't know what else I could do that I haven't done."

But O'Brien says he'll gather a few more statistics and return with the bill next year if he is reelected by his Virginia Beach constituents.

And while he has a few bills in the hopper addressing education and "latch-key children," most of his colleagues say his most noteworthy battle is over for another year.