During the Maryland gubernatorial race in September, a powerful group of Baltimore ministers spent $20,000 on an advertising campaign to denounce Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. as a tool of "the casino gambling interests." Ehrlich won anyway, temporarily silencing the preachers who opposed his plan to legalize slot machines.
Five months later, the clerics are at it again. Scores of Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders are forming coalitions to fight the Republican governor's plan to bring 10,500 slots to Maryland's racetracks.
From their pulpits, they are railing against gambling as a societal menace and urging followers to flood lawmakers with messages opposing slots. They are planning to pack hearing rooms with supporters next week when the General Assembly begins hearings. And they have tentatively set aside March 2 as a statewide "sermon day" for pastors to preach against slots.
"We are very strongly opposed to slots," said David Lee, executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland and Delaware, which counts about 100,000 followers in Maryland alone. "We believe it preys upon those who can least afford it. We also believe it's an enemy to families."
While religious leaders have been vocal in their opposition, they are discovering that it's not so easy to muster enthusiasm for their crusade this time around. Many acknowledged that they had given up the fight after Ehrlich won election in November, figuring that slots would win easy approval in the General Assembly. Others are finding that parishioners disagree with their anti-gambling message, a fact buttressed by polls that show a slim majority of Marylanders favor the legalization of slot machines at racetracks.
"After the election, I felt like [Pontius] Pilate," said the Rev. Gregory B. Perkins, president of the Baltimore Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. "I washed my hands of the issue. I figured it was a done deal, that we had done our best, but that was it."
The state faces a $1.3 billion budget deficit next year. By approving 10,500 slot machines at four racetracks, the Ehrlich administration estimates that it could eventually raise $800 million annually for the state treasury.
Last week, Perkins and about 20 other Baltimore ministers met with House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), a leading foe of slots, to plot strategy for reviving an organized religious opposition. Busch argued that poor and working-class people would be the most active users of slots and would lose the most money. While the ministers appeared receptive to his message, some said that their congregants may not agree.
The Rev. Sylvester Peterka, a Roman Catholic priest from West Baltimore, called slots sinful and decried Ehrlich's plan as "balancing the budget on the backs of the poor." But he acknowledged that busloads of gamblers meet in his church parking lot two or three times a year for trips to Delaware, where slots are legal.
Despite the lobbying campaign that religious leaders have promised, few members of the General Assembly have reported unusual pressure from church groups. Sen. Patrick J. Hogan (D-Montgomery), a slots supporter, said he recently heard from one minister about the issue. But he dismissed moral concerns about slots, pointing out that the state already endorses gambling by running the Maryland Lottery.
"To me, it's not a moral question," Hogan said. "News flash: We have gambling in the state of Maryland already."
Hogan and other lawmakers said the allure of Ehrlich's gambling proposal is purely financial. "This whole issue is being driven by the budget," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), one of Ehrlich's leading allies on gambling. "Nobody yet has come up with a viable alternative to slots."
Miller said he has received a handful of letters from religious leaders opposed to slots. But he said it was predictable that some church leaders would take that stance, because "they need to protect their own bingo operations."
As they press legislators, religious leaders opposed to slots have joined forces with some unlikely allies. Protestant, Catholic and Muslim groups have joined a coalition called www.stopslotsmd.com, which is being bankrolled largely by bar owners who fear they would lose business if racetracks offer free food and drinks to lure gamblers.
For the most part, however, clergy members are making a moral argument that slots will lead to gambling addiction, broken families and more crime.
The Rev. Andrew L. Gunn, a Methodist pastor from Germantown, has come out of retirement to help in the battle. The former country preacher from Charles County helped lead a similar effort 40 years ago to outlaw slot machines in Southern Maryland, where they were legal until 1968.
Gunn recalled the old days in Southern Maryland as a time of widespread vice. "Everywhere you went there were slot machines and liquor and prostitutes and drugs. It was a very sinful highway."
He said he has visited about 10 churches in the past month to spread his anti-gambling message and hopes to speak at about 10 more in the next few weeks.
One of the loudest voices opposed to slot machines is the United Methodist Church. Among the ministers who have preached against slots is the Rev. Byron Brought, pastor of Calvary United Methodist Church in Annapolis and the minister who married Ehrlich and his wife, Kendel, 10 years ago.
"There are moral concerns," Brought said, "that the government would be using this, preying upon the greed and weaknesses of our citizens."
Other influential church groups have registered their concerns more quietly. Cardinals Theodore E. McCarrick and William H. Keeler, the archbishops of Washington and Baltimore, respectively, tried to change Ehrlich's mind at a dinner before his inauguration. But Catholic leaders said they have not consistently pressed the issue since then, spending more energy on such topics as the death penalty.
"It's not the ripest thing on our agenda," said Richard J. Dowling, head of the Maryland Catholic Conference.