With just more than two weeks until the election and millions spent on a fierce ad campaign, the Rev. Jonathan Weaver isn’t worried.
“I’m still very optimistic that Question 7 will be torpedoed on that first Tuesday,” said Weaver, who is pastor of Greater Mt. Nebo African Methodist Episcopal Church in Bowie.
Weaver has been one of the most outspoken Prince George’s County clergymen opposing plans to bring a Las Vegas-style casino to the county.
On Nov. 6, voters statewide will have their say on the question, which also includes allowing table games at Maryland’s existing casinos, and if a majority of county residents reject the measure, there will be no new casino.
For Weaver and his allies, the case against gambling largely is one of bad economics: The region already has been ravaged by the economic downturn and large number of foreclosures. The solution is not to raise revenue by encouraging people to lose money, he said.
“Most of us have been spending time Sunday mornings letting members know, in a very emphatic way [to vote against it],” Weaver said.
In addition to grass-roots work — handing out fliers, encouraging members to spread the word — Weaver and his colleagues are organizing a “major” news conference for Thursday, where he expects hundreds of pastors to voice their opposition.
A Washington Post poll released last week found that 46 percent of voters statewide favor expanded gambling, with 48 percent opposed; in Prince George’s, 52 percent supported an expansion, with 44 percent opposed. But the poll cautioned that the sample of Prince George’s voters wasn’t large enough to suggest a significant advantage.
Although many church leaders have made their anti-casino positions known, not all are making the case against casinos from the pulpit.
“We allow our parishioners to make their own choice. We encourage them to vote,” said Bishop Paul Wells of New Revival Kingdom Church in Forestville, who said he will be part of the news conference Thursday.
And for some, casinos aren’t generating much discussion at all.
Parishoners at St. Mary’s of Piscataway in Clinton don’t really see Question 7 as a religious issue, said the Rev. Timothy Baer, who declined to discuss his own opinion on the issue.
Church members were far more concerned with the practical aspects, such as job creation and school funding, rather than religious concerns, Baer said.
Clergy who do talk politics at the pulpit likely are to be outside the mainstream — perhaps more so than most people think, said Laura Hussey, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Recent research has suggested that while clergy may lend their support and moral authority to causes outside the church, most will keep their political views separate from their sermons, Hussey said.
And the multiple aspects of the gambling question — from placement of a casino to state budget concerns — can make it difficult to take a clear religious stance.
“It’s an issue that doesn’t lend itself to being easily decided by the average voter,” Hussey said.
That complexity was on display this week at a town hall meeting hosted by Del. Jay Walker (D-Dist. 26) of Fort Washington, who supports the measure.
Walker spoke to several agitated voters, some of whom wanted guarantees that gambling revenue earmarked for education would never be used for other purposes — a promise no legislator can really make, because laws always can be changed.
Concerns about education funding have been raised in ads — funded by Penn National Gaming, which owns a major casino in nearby Charles Town, W.Va. — that urge Marylanders to reject the measure.
Walker said that argument was frustrating, particularly considering the state’s high-ranking public schools and high funding levels for schools.
“You can question politicians on things, but in the state of Maryland you can’t question us on education,” Walker said. “You kind of take it personally.”
Fort Washington residents Alana Collins and Sandra Robinson, both of whom attended Walker’s meeting, said neither of their church leaders had urged them to take a specific position on Question 7. The two were divided on the issue.
“It’s another set of problems,” said Robinson, who opposes the measure. The developers behind the project wouldn’t have to live close to the possible negative impacts, such as increased crime, she said.
Some studies have shown that crime increases in areas around casinos; others say the evidence is inconclusive.
“You can find studies that say pretty much anything,” said David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
His own examination of FBI statistics suggests that crimes such as theft and pickpockecting might increase, Schwartz said. When Atlantic City opened its casinos in the 1970s, other types of crime actually decreased, but it wasn’t clear why, he said.
Collins wasn’t as concerned about the crime issue, saying she found appealing the prospect of new jobs and road improvements along Indian Head Highway — close to the likely casino site at National Harbor.
“It’s going to bring more positives and negatives,” she said.