Tennessee voters to decide whether to legalize lottery

Tuesday, November 5, 2002

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It's a moral issue. It's not a moral issue.

That's the mixed message from Tennessee lottery opponents fighting to keep the Bible Belt state from joining 47 other states with some form of legalized gambling.

While their hopes of defeating Tuesday's referendum depend heavily on a grass-roots Christian army, opposition leaders purposely avoid casting the vote as a sin issue, instead treating it as a policy and economic matter.

"To win, we could not make it a preacher issue," said the Rev. Paul Durham, a Southern Baptist pastor and treasurer for the Gambling Free Tennessee Alliance. "We had to make it a truth issue."

No thumping of Bible

The campaign's lack of Bible thumping reflects political and theological realities in the battle over lifting a constitutional ban on a lottery. Polls have consistently shown most Tennesseans -- those in the pews and otherwise -- see no inherent evil in the concept of a lottery.

"Since 47 states have gambling, I would have to think God's not really against it," said state Sen. Steve Cohen, a Democrat and the state's chief lottery proponent.

To be sure, some preach unabashedly that Scriptures teach against gambling.

"The principle is honest wage for honest labor and gambling in no way fits with that," Dan Cottrell, minister of the Southern Hills Church of Christ in Franklin, told his congregation recently. "Gambling is based upon greed, and that makes it a form of covetousness."

James Porch, executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, said he also considers gambling a sin. But in 3.2 million anti-lottery leaflets distributed to Southern Baptist churches statewide, the convention took a different tack, arguing that lotteries hurt children, the poor and the economy and don't do much to help education.

Supporters are pushing the lottery as way to generate a much-needed $900 million a year during sour economic times.

Half of revenues would go to prizes and one-sixth to administrative costs and ticket vendors, with the remainder -- roughly $300 million -- funding college scholarships, preschool programs and school construction.

Tennessee is joined by Hawaii and Utah as the only states that have no legalized gambling. Other Southern states have taken efforts to create lotteries in recent years.

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