By Greg Garrison | [email protected]
The Rev. Joe Godfrey, executive director of ALCAP, will lead churches in the fight against a state lottery in Alabama.
Southern Baptists have been fighting gambling since the days of brush arbor revivals across the South.
They remain some of the staunchest opponents of gambling, believing it promotes immorality and hurts the poor.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, who took office flouting his reputation as a staunch Southern Baptist upholder of morality, has now called for a special session to consider a state lottery.
The minister assigned to lead the Southern Baptist fight against gambling in Alabama questions Bentley’s motives.
“Either his morals are not as strong as he claims they are, which we’ve already seen, or this is a distraction from the scandal,” said the Rev. Joe Godfrey, executive director of the Alabama Citizens Action Program, an anti-gambling lobby supported by the Alabama Baptist Convention.
“I’ve talked to a lot a lot of pastors who are fed up with him,” said Godfrey, a former president of the state Baptist convention.
Regardless of Bentley’s motives, Godfrey is gearing up for yet another fight against lottery proposals.
“It’s a regressive tax on the poor,” Godfrey said. “It’s deceiving people into thinking it’s their ticket out of poverty. They’re going to advertise it and sell lottery tickets in poor neighborhoods, and people will spend their entire paychecks. Most of those tickets will end up in the trash.”
Then the state’s social services agencies will be beset by chronic gamblers and the social problems they cause, including increased Medicaid rolls, Godfrey said. Instead of fixing Medicaid funding, it will create a bigger drain on state services, he said.
“You’re not going to sell enough lottery tickets to sustain it,” he said. “It’s not producing wealth. It’s draining money out of the economy. When people buy lottery tickets, they’re not buying goods and services. They’re not paying sales taxes. The state will have to raise taxes.”
If the state votes to overturn its constitutional ban on lotteries, a push for casinos will be next, Godfrey believes.
“If people vote to allow a lottery, the legislature can come back and put in place casinos,” Godfrey said.
“I think it’s smoke and mirrors. I think the ultimate goal is to get casinos. They’ll come back and say the lottery revenue is not coming in like we thought it would; we need casinos, slots, keno, terminals. It’ll be a constant battle from now on.”
When he was pastor of First Baptist Church of Pleasant Grove, Godfrey had an older couple in the congregation who went to a Mississippi casino and gambled away everything they had, including the mortgage to their house. Gambling addicts then often turn to churches for assistance, he said.
“If we had casinos, they will go on a regular basis,” he said. “They will go every day and sit and gamble all day and lose everything they have.”
While many in Alabama travel to other states to gamble, it’s not as much a drain as if gambling were more available closer to home, Godfrey believes.
Gambling revenues mainly benefit casino owners, he said.
“The gambling bosses will own this state,” Godfrey said.
“A very small amount goes to state government,” he said. “When they opened Birmingham Race Course, we were told Birmingham City Schools would never have to worry about revenues again. You see how that turned out. If you look at schools in Mississippi, they are at the bottom of the pile. It doesn’t help their schools. Then people don’t have money to spend on goods and services when they lose all their money gambling. You’ll see more of that.”
Although churches staunchly opposed past efforts to create a state lottery, a major factor in keeping them out of Alabama, church opposition has faded as gambling becomes more acceptable, Godfrey admits.
Even Baptist and Methodist churches that once held the line on gambling now see prominent members going across state lines to buy lottery tickets and play at casinos and questioning the traditional moral stance against it.
So the front line of defense in the past now may be vulnerable.
“It’s going to be the churches that have to fight it,” Godfrey said. “Churches don’t have the money and reserves they did in the late 1990s. The recession has hit them hard.”
Churches will be hit again if a lottery passes, he believes. “When gambling addicts go broke, they’re going to come to the churches looking for help,” Godfrey said.
Now Republicans looking for alternatives to income, sales and property tax increases are more likely to resort to a lottery as an alternative, he said.
“This is not going to be good for the economy,” Godfrey said. “It sucks money out of the state. You have to raise taxes to sustain services. It’s the worst way to raise money. It’s still a tax. It’s a regressive tax on the poor.”
The real solution to state budget problems is courageous leadership, Godfrey said.
“We need to come up with a tax plan that’s fair and equitable and cut the budget,” Godfrey said. “If you’re depending on gambling, you’re in trouble. Gambling does not solve economic problems, it makes them worse. When the recession hit, Nevada had some of the highest unemployment rates, foreclosure rates, suicide rates. People stopped going out there to gamble when they didn’t have money. Our budget situation is bad, but It’d be worse if we had a lottery.”
States that use lottery money for college scholarships have had to raise academic standards for earning the scholarships, which means that children who attend poor schools with few resources often have a lesser chance of getting scholarships, he said.
“In Georgia, poor people are buying lottery tickets to pay for rich kids to go to college,” he said.
“It’s like Robin Hood in reverse. It’s robbing from the poor to give to the rich.”
Lottery income also pays for advertising that targets the poor, he said. “The government is asking citizens to invest in worthless lottery tickets,” Godfrey said. “It’s just sad.”