Tuesday, February 22, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Church leaders in Prince George’s County have mobilized a considerable lobbying campaign against legislation that could establish slot-machine gambling in the county and the state.

“We have put the call out to every pastor to fax, e-mail and call members of the [county] delegation to Annapolis to express their vehement opposition to any further form of gambling to be introduced into the state of Maryland,” said the Rev. Jonathan L. Weaver, president of the 200-member-church Collective Banking Group of Prince George’s County.

The county has become a battleground on the slots gambling issue. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, has proposed placing some machines at the Rosecroft harness-racing track in Fort Washington, but the Democrat-controlled Senate has approved a plan that could exclude Prince George’s County.

Yesterday, a House Ways and Means Committee subcommittee kept the county out of its slots plan. The House version calls for authorizing 9,500 machines in only Anne Arundel, Dorchester, Frederick and Harford counties — down from the 15,500 machines at seven sites sought by Mr. Ehrlich and the Senate.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel County Democrat, told the Associated Press that the changes were needed to get the bill out of the Ways and Means Committee, where it has died the past two years. The full committee is expected to vote on the bill this week.

The Prince George’s delegation has been united in its opposition to slot machine gambling, driven in part by churches big and small across the county.

Mr. Weaver, pastor of Greater Mount Nebo African Methodist Episcopal Church in Bowie, said he has told his church’s 2,000 members to contact their representatives in the General Assembly to voice their opposition to slots.

“We have to make the time so the delegates will hear our voices,” he said. “This will cause harm to our families and communities. This is not a Democrat or Republican issue.”

Mr. Weaver, who has traveled three times this year to Annapolis to lobby lawmakers, is scheduled to make his fourth trip today to announce a “Stop Slots Sabbath” campaign, sponsored by the anti-slots group Stop Slots Maryland.

Meanwhile, the Rev. Vandy Kennedy, pastor of Walker Mill Baptist Church in Capitol Heights, has preached as many as a dozen sermons on the ills of gambling, including one titled “You Can’t Gamble with God.”

“Anybody that votes for gambling demoralizes their congregation, and that’s the bottom line,” said Mr. Kennedy, whose church boasts 200 members. “How are you going to rob God’s house to finance Satan’s house?”

The Rev. Diane Johnson, pastor of Jerusalem AME Church in Clinton, said, “Ministers are leaders in the community, and ministers advocate for the greater good.

“And for myself, I believe that slots are not for the greater good of the community,” said Miss Johnson, who also serves as financial secretary for the Collective Banking Group of Prince George’s County.

The gambling legislation aims to generate funds for education initiatives with revenue from slots licenses and profits. Mr. Ehrlich has predicted the plan could generate as much as $800 million a year for schools and has earmarked $100 million of slots revenue for school construction.

The Senate version would require that $150 million from slots revenue be spent on public school construction each year for eight years. The House version would direct nearly all of the state’s slots revenue to school construction, instead of classroom instruction.

“Politically, they are using education to push the agenda, and that is not right,” said the Rev. Don Massey, pastor of Progressive Church in Temple Hills. “How are they going to promote the well-being of somebody at the expense of another group of people?”

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s County Democrat, has predicted that the Democrat-controlled General Assembly this year will pass a slots gambling bill.

House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, Montgomery County Democrat, has told The Washington Times that lawmakers have persuaded Mr. Busch to allow a full House vote on the legislation this year.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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