Churches continue fight against lottery referendum

By Thomas Wilson

   Although opinion polls indicate a majority of Tennesseans support a state lottery, local religious leaders believe citizens could have a change of heart by Election Day in November.
   "Nothing is too hard for God to do," said Rev. Bruce Hendrich, pastor of Oak Street Baptist Church in Elizabethton. "There are a lot of Christians who don't see the danger of it."
   Hendrich was one of three pastors -- but only a handful of citizens -- who attended an anti-lottery service held at First United Methodist Church on Wednesday night.
   Tennesseans will have an opportunity to lift the state's Constitutional prohibition on a lottery when they go to the polls to vote on the lottery amendment in the state general election on Nov. 5.
   "Early voting began today, so we felt like it was a great day to commit the vote to the Lord," said Hendrich, who referenced Acts 12:1-11, Peter's deliverance from Herod by an angel, in his address to the audience.
   Passage of the referendum would not create a lottery. If the amendment is passed, legislation enacting a state lottery would require a two-thirds vote in both houses of the General Assembly.
   State legislators favoring the lottery have stated publicly that a Tennessee lottery would be modeled after the state of Georgia's lottery -- citing the Hope Scholarships for Georgia college students and the Pre-Kindergarten program for young children.
   Lottery opponents point to surveys that the Hope Scholarships have raised Georgia's college enrollment by only 7 percent and have funded most scholarships for middle- and upper-income students who had the means and will to go to college already.
   "Government is supposed to support people, not take advantage of them," said Hendrich.
   Attendee Steve Witt said a lottery creates greater hardship on the poor and, despite chances of being a big winner, the greatest majority of lottery players end up on the losing end of the game.
   "In order for someone to win, everyone else has to lose," said Witt.
   The 20 citizens who attended the service prayed silently and in small groups before closing with a spontaneous rendition of "Amazing Grace".
   "I am against it," said Jane White, who cited the Georgia model's focus only on college scholarships. "I think all the other students need it, too. And, you see too many people hooked on it like they do drinking."
   First United Methodist Pastor Buford Hankins said the Methodist Church doctrine had opposed any public lottery since the days of its founder John Wesley. He noted that rallying churches across the state was a challenge, but could be done if citizens took their civic responsibility seriously.
   Hankins recounted a mission trip to Liberia where civil war and military dictatorships had ravaged the country until democratic elections were held in 1985.
   "It was amazing to see people stand in the hot sun all day to cast their votes for the first time," said Hankins. "We take our freedoms for granted."
   He also said some church members had told him they did not see any problem with a lottery. A perspective Hankins said did not offend him.
   "That's fine," he said, "we're not going to tell them they are going to burn in hell because of that."