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Boats in Moats Opposition

September 10, 1998
By: Najeeb Hasan
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Some Missouri religious groups, along with civic and other organizations, are sharing an effort to rid Missouri of riverboat casinos in man-made moats.

Involved in gearing up for the Nov. 3 election - where boats in moats will be a prominent issue - are the Missouri Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church, the Islamic Center of Central Missouri in Columbia, the St. Louis-based Christian Civic Foundation and the anti-gambling group Casino Watch.

Constitutional Amendment 9 on the November ballot would permit casinos in artificial moats within 1,000 feet of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers' main channels to conduct gift enterprises, lotteries and games of chance.

The legislature had authorized the so-called "boats in moats," but Missouri's Supreme Court ruled the legislature did not have authority to expand gambling beyond the actual Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.

Hostage to this issue are ten gambling boats approved for gambling before the court's decision.

Legislative staff say the state and local governments of Missouri receive between $95,000,000 to $170,000,000 in annual revenue from those moat-based gambling boats.

"The stand of the church is that we oppose legalized gambling, but that is not the issue," said Peggy Eschelman, the spiritual formation social justice chair for the Missouri West Conference of the United Methodist Church. "The issue is expand it."

Eschelman said both the Missouri West and East conferences of the United Methodist Church passed resolutions last summer against the legalization of land-based casinos and voted unanimously to actively oppose the amendment.

The church has appointed district coordinators to organize anti-gambling education in local congregations. In addition, the church is polling members about their views on the issue.

The United Methodist Church categorizes the legalization of boats in moats as a slippery-slope situation, arguing that the amendment allowing casino riverboats in artificial water basins would lead to an inevitable spread of casinos on land.

"It (gambling) goes against the common good and preys on the weak," said Tom Grey, an Illinois minister and executive director for the National Coalition against Gambling Expansion. "If they slither out of the water, doesn't that mean they would next move out on land? What would stop them?"

Methodist pastors, Eschelman said, will be exhorting their congregations to vote in the election. The United Methodist Church claims more than 187,000 members in Missouri.

The United Methodist Church has scheduled a session in Columbia on the gambling issue for Sept. 22 and 23.

Meanwhile, the Missouri Baptist Convention, the traditional religious opposition to gambling, has already dipped into its coffers, doling out $25,000 to support the opposition effort.

Tim Yarbrough, the director of public relations for the Missouri Baptist Convention, detailed a four-tiered plan that would lead to the approaching election:

* Focus of concerted prayer efforts by churches that oppose gambling.

* Encourage each local church to register the maximum number of voters possible.

* Request the appointment of a gambling awareness coordinator in each church.

* Ask the 2,800 to 3,500 members who will attend an annual Baptist meeting which will be held during the November election day to vote by absentee ballot.

James West, a pastor from the Ashland Baptist Church, confirmed the convention's plan was already in motion and is being met with approval from the individual churches.

"Personally I am opposed to any form of gambling, whether it be bingo or any other," he said. "I think that every church I have spoken with are 100 percent against gambling and would like to limit [gambling] activities in every possible corner."

Ten of the state's 16 riverboats would be affected if the amendment is not approved.

The gambling industry has not taken a specific tact in reaction to the religious-based opposition.

"They are clearly free to do what they want to do," said Missourians for Fairness and Jobs spokesperson Don Posten. "We have to work to get any issue and we have to work to get this one voted."

But Posten did react to Grey's fear that the approval of boats in moats would trigger the rise of Missouri casinos on dry land.

"That is not the issue." Posten said. "The issue is the constitution. The issue is fairness. Companies put in more than a billion dollars in building these riverboats. They asked if they were legal at every turn, and they answers they received were yes, yes, yes. Then they [the state Supreme Court] ruled against it."