Alabama Baptist and other faith-based leaders continue to speak out against the current gambling legislation anticipated to move quickly through the state House of Representatives. They also are sending an urgent message to all who are concerned to join them.
“This one is really, really hot and very, very serious,” Greg Davis, president and CEO of Alabama Citizens Action Program (ALCAP), shared following his review of the legislation. “It will change the face of our state; there’s no doubt about it.”
Two House Republicans, Rep. Chris Blackshear (Smiths Station) and Rep. Andy Whitt (Harvest), are sponsoring a bill that not only creates a state lottery but also legalizes casino-style gambling and sports betting (including online) in the state.
Whitt — who led a group of legislators in a 14-month study of gambling in Alabama commissioned by Speaker of the House Nathaniel Ledbetter — says his reasoning behind the major expansion of legalized gambling is an attempt to temper the ongoing illegal operations.
Illegal gambling activity in Alabama is like “the wild west,” Whitt told Alabama Media Group.
“I think when we have 67 counties, 67 sheriffs and DAs interpreting the law differently. There’s no clarity [nor] one uniformed piece of legislation or law that they follow,” he said. “Enforcements are different … across the state.”
Confusion over enforcing current law
But Davis opposes the concept of regulating legalized gambling. Instead, he is advocating to merely enforce the current law.
“To curb illegal gambling operations, enacting and enforcing stricter criminal penalties is a more effective measure than legalization and regulation,” Davis explained, noting the word “regulate” is being highlighted but to regulate requires legalization.
Illegal gambling in Alabama
Alabama has a long history of confusion and division regarding illegal gambling in the state and attempts at expanding gambling surface every legislative session.
While dog races and pari-mutuel horse races are legal at the state’s four tracks — Greene County Entertainment Center (formerly GreeneTrack) in Greene County, the Birmingham Race Track in Jefferson County, VictoryLand in Macon County and the Mobile County Greyhound Racing facility — casino-style games are not legal.
Known as class III gambling, casino-style games include slot machines, blackjack and other games of chance.
Traditional paper bingo for charity is legal but not slot-machine style games labeled as “electronic bingo” or “electronic gambling.” Still, a continuous string of slot machine operators has attempted to skirt the law with machines that have a small, animated bingo card in the bottom corner of the screen showcasing the slots.
Additionally, because of the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, gambling activities are allowed on tribal lands at the same level as what is legal in the state in which the land sits. With non-reservation facilities attempting to run electronic slot machine-style devices (even though they are illegal), the Poarch Band of Creek Indians thus uses IGRA as the reasoning to operate similar machines at the tribe’s three operations in the state — located on tribal lands in Atmore, Montgomery and Wetumpka.
Davis explained that Alabama’s 1901 constitution officially bans lotteries and games of chance, but 18 different constitutional amendments permit those specific forms of traditional bingo in certain counties throughout the state. These constitutional amendments are the laws consistently being ignored or interpreted beyond the original intention.
Whitt and Blackshear’s 2024 legislation would essentially repeal those constitutional amendments, and instead legalize a regulated form of class III gambling in 10 different selected areas chosen through a bidding process.
“The criminalization of for-profit lotteries and casino-style gambling was successfully practiced for a large portion of American history,” Davis said. “This does not mean illegal gambling was completely absent from society, but public institutions did their best to enforce the law thus containing it and not promoting it. They did not incentivize their citizens to lose their money gambling, as does the proposed predatory gambling.”
During a radio interview with Davis in early December, Rep. Allen Treadaway (R–Jefferson County) applauded the shutdowns.
“The Attorney General (Steve Marshall) is very clear, it’s illegal,” Treadaway said. “I started meeting with [him] and other local elected officials and tried to find out what we can do to stop the growth of these illegal establishments. We cannot pick and choose which laws we enforce.”
During last year’s legislative session, Treadaway sponsored House Bill 344, which took the fine for illegal gambling operations from less than $100 to $3,000 or 6 months in jail per incident. This law took effect Oct. 1, leading to a large crackdown of illegal operations in late 2023.
‘Churches will deal with this’
Gambling is ultimately a human issue, Davis told The Alabama Baptist, noting it affects more than laws. It also impacts the ministry of churches.
“I think our pastors and our people who lead ministries, they see the results of this day in and day out in their communities because that’s where those people come for help,” he said. “No doubt our churches will deal with this.
“It’s a continual battle, as it is with any illegal operation, to enforce the law and to decrease criminalization in our state,” Davis said. “While we definitely need some clarification and stronger enforcement, our main message is that we should enforce the law like any law.”
Baptist leaders’ joint statement
Alabama Baptist State Convention and State Board of Missions leaders released a joint statement Feb. 9 voicing their opposition to any expansion of gambling.
“The sad and tragic results of gambling frequently adversely affect the poor and wreck the lives of families and individuals who participate, notably those who live below the poverty level. Gambling can intensify addiction, leading to financial ruin, relationship strain and psychological distress.
“We urge Alabama Baptists to contact state legislators and other elected officials.” To read the full statement, visit ricklance.com.
Davis and Birmingham-area pastor Zac Reno both described the current effort taking place in the Alabama Statehouse as “spiritual warfare.”
“If [proponents are] the only one speaking to them, then that’s the only voice they hear,” Reno said.
He and Davis echo the sentiment to reach out to state representatives and senators.
“This is a gospel issue to me,” Davis said. “It affects people’s lives in a negative way, and it must be a matter of prayer. There is a lot of pressure on the House members, especially those who want to fight against it but aren’t hearing much opposition to the legislation.”
‘Your voice makes a difference’
“Contact your state representative today,” Davis pleaded. “Your voice makes a different. You have a lot of influence. You just have to use it.”
To find your legislators and their contact information, visit alcap.com.
EDITOR’S NOTE — This story was written by Timothy Cockes and Jennifer Davis Rash for The Alabama Baptist.