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Church facing uphill fight on casino

Some say sense of inevitability curtailing effort

Church leaders, who have used their moral authority and political muscle to defeat gambling proposals for more than 70 years in Massachusetts, are struggling to gain traction against a casino in Middleborough this year as they face declining clout on Beacon Hill, indifferent congregants, and a sense that the casino is inevitable.

While some church leaders have circulated bulletins decrying the social costs of casinos, most have not organized the muscular letter-writing campaigns, State House lobbying blitzes, or sermons that were hallmarks of their victories over efforts to expand gambling in 1994 and 2001.

The relative quiet from a community that has long been among the strongest voices against casino gambling has puzzled lawmakers and sparked some soul-searching among religious leaders, who question whether a fight against a casino is worth waging.

"Why fight a battle that you're not going to win?" said the Rev. Richard McGowan, a Jesuit priest and professor of economics who studies gambling at Boston College.

Perhaps the best religious leaders can hope for this year, McGowan said, is to make sure that a portion of casino revenues are set aside for programs for the needy, especially treatment services for compulsive gamblers.

"Behind the scenes, you might be able to mitigate some of the negative effects," he said.

Raymond L. Flynn -- the former mayor of Boston, former ambassador to the Vatican, and current president of Catholic Citizenship, an activist group -- traces the reluctance among Catholic leaders to fight the casino proposal to the eruption of the clergy sexual abuse crisis.

"It was really the clergy sexual abuse scandal that really brought the church to a position where they weren't very effective in lobbying in the Massachu setts Legislature," Flynn said. "I think they lost a lot of their moral and political influence and clout up at the State House."

Lawmakers said they have noticed the absence of a moral voice from religious leaders as they near a possible vote on a casino this fall.

"Let me tell you: they've been in absentia this year," said Representative James R. Miceli, a Wilmington Democrat who was first elected in 1976 and says he is undecided about building a casino. "They haven't done anything. They haven't talked about it. They haven't called. . . . I don't understand it. It's something they've been quite vocal about in the past."

Edward F. Saunders Jr. -- executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the church's public policy arm -- said that Catholic leaders will become more vocal. He suggested that the church would not act until casino legislation is formally introduced on Beacon Hill.

"We're monitoring and having discussions, but as to involving the general public and the members of the Catholic Church, we have not made any final decisions on that," said Saunders. "We don't have any specific plan in place because, as we all know, everything is under discussion. It's all a timing issue, and we just haven't felt the appropriate time is there yet."

Laura Everett -- associate director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, which represents 1,700 Protestant and Orthodox Christian churches -- said church leaders are frustrated by the sense that gambling supporters have more momentum.

"I think what's different this year is there is a lot more money involved, and the opponents have done a very good job of convincing people that this is inevitable," Everett said.

The relative quiet marks a change from Massachusetts tradition. Religious leaders have helped defeat gambling proposals since at least 1935, when Cardinal William H. O'Connell, the archbishop of Boston, persuaded the Legislature to defeat Governor James M. Curley's plans for a state-sponsored lottery, according to Thomas H. O'Connor, the Boston College historian.

"This is not merely a political question," O'Connell wrote. "It's a very serious moral problem."

More recently, the Council of Churches helped sink Governor William F. Weld's plans to expand gambling in 1994 by launching a letter-writing campaign and organizing a day of lobbying at the State House attended by more than 100 members of the clergy. In 2001, church leaders helped defeat an effort by the Wampanoag to build a casino in Southeastern Massachusetts. And in 2002, the Council of Churches flew two gambling analysts from the University of Illinois to testify on Beacon Hill about the social costs of gambling.

This year, churches have made some noise. The Council of Churches asked its members to discuss the potential for a casino to increase gambling addiction and crime. The Catholic Conference has e-mailed 1,500 supporters asking them to lobby Middleborough voters against a casino. And Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston, has blogged about the issue.

"If public works and projects in the Commonwealth need to be funded, there should be other ways to do that, perhaps by raising taxes," O'Malley wrote July 27. "But relying on casinos makes us gambling junkies, and we become dependent on that money, which will result in many ruined lives, ruined businesses, and ruined neighborhoods. So we unequivocally oppose casino gambling in the state."

Despite the statement, public opinion polls suggest 90 percent of college-age people see nothing wrong with gambling, McGowan said. And many churchgoers probably see nothing wrong with a casino, he said, making it more difficult for religious leaders to exhort them to write letters or call legislators.

The day after O'Malley posted his statement, Middleborough voters approved a deal with the Wampanoag that could bring the town $11 million annually.

"It's an interesting problem for religious leaders when the people are not going to follow your lead, and I think that's exactly what's going on here," McGowan said.

Governor Deval Patrick is studying the issue and will announce his position on a casino by Labor Day. The Legislature will then debate the plan. Church leaders say they will become vocal when the debate reaches a boil.

"There are many, many more steps before we get this approval," Everett said, "so the churches are seeking to counter this sense of inevitability and say, let's slow down and say what are the costs, and is this good government, when the state is essentially bringing something into the Commonwealth that it knows will cause harm."

Michael Levenson can be reached at