- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 29, 2014

HOUSTON (AP) - A federal appeals court has ruled that charitable bingo operators can use proceeds from their games to lobby Texas lawmakers on a variety of issues, including gambling.

The full 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that a provision of the Texas Bingo Enabling Act, on the books for more than three decades, violated free speech rights of nonprofits that hold bingo licenses. The decision, released late Monday, upholds a lower court ruling.

About a dozen organizations, including Veterans of Foreign Wars posts and Elks lodges, filed a lawsuit in 2010 against the Texas Lottery Commission, which enforces provisions of the Bingo Act. The suit argues that for-profit gambling interests such as horse and dog racing firms were allowed to use revenues “to influence the political process” but nonprofit groups were not.

The lawsuit argued that the provision “skews the process in favor of for-profit businesses,” so when state lawmakers consider any gambling-related issues, “the playing field will be heavily tilted in favor of for-profit gambling.”

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks ruled in favor of the charitable groups, but a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit sided with the Lottery Commission. The nonprofits then won the review by the full appeals court.

“The narrow result is each charity now is free to use bingo money to pursue a legislative agenda,” Anatole Barnstone, an attorney for the charitable groups, said Tuesday. “It’s the broader thing that’s more important. Now the law is clear the government can’t tell you as a license holder you can’t use your revenue for speech.”

The Texas Attorney General’s office, which argued the case for the lottery commissioners, had no immediate comment Tuesday. The decision could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Barnstone said that while the ruling affects about 1,100 charities that hold bingo licenses, “maybe a few dozen” are involved in lobbying or political advocacy.

“We’re thrilled and delighted that the 5th Circuit recognized that small, little charities have the same free speech rights as big corporations,” he said.

Bills to bring casino gambling to Texas have failed but routinely are introduced when lawmakers meet every two years.

“That’s really a never-ending battle,” Barnstone said. “That’s one of purposes, to be able to compete, to have an equal voice as horse and dog racing folks do in the Legislature.”

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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