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Clergy try to fend off a casino in East Boston

More than 30 local religious leaders from an assortment of faiths have formed a new group to oppose a casino at Suffolk Downs, promising to pray, preach, and canvass to defeat the project when it comes to a vote in East Boston on Nov. 5.

“A casino in East Boston is probably one of the worst things that could happen to our community,” said the Rev. Thomas S. Domurat, pastor of Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, who predicted that a casino would increase gambling addiction, personal bankruptcies, and traffic on neighborhood streets. “It is my hope that all of East Boston will stand together, as churches and businesses are doing today, in opposition to casino gambling in our community.”

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Domurat and several other founding members of the group, calling themselves Friends of East Boston, announced their no-budget campaign against the casino at a press conference Monday, conducted in Spanish and English, in the basement of the Central Assembly of God Church in East Boston.

The Friends of East Boston comprises local clergy, businesspeople, and members of nonprofit groups who have been meeting quietly over the summer to discuss strategies for defeating the gambling project, according to the group.

Pedro Morales, 40, a Harvard Divinity School student from East Boston who is coordinating the effort, said the group “has not raised one dollar” to defeat the casino and does not expect to raise a lot of money for a campaign.

“You’re not going to fight a casino with money,” he said, chuckling at the notion. “You’re not going to fight Goliath with Goliath’s tools.”

He said the group will combat the casino by repeating the message that “East Boston can do better” than a gambling business.

“Every single Sunday, in every single church, from every single pastor, the people will hear that message,” he said.

The group intends to collect more than 5,000 signatures in East Boston on a petition asking Suffolk Downs to voluntarily withdraw its casino proposal. “We’re going to offer them a graceful way out,” said Morales, in an interview.

Suffolk Downs, with partner Caesars Entertainment, has planned a $1 billion gambling resort at the track, with hotels, shopping, restaurants, a spa, and other amenities, as well as Las Vegas-style slot machines and table games.

The developers have promoted the project as a boon for the neighborhood that will create 4,000 permanent jobs and will provide the city of Boston at least $32 million a year in revenue. The project is competing for the sole Greater Boston casino license with a Wynn Resorts casino proposal on the Mystic River waterfront in Everett and with a Foxwoods project in suburban Milford. Only one of the competitors can win the license.

The announcement of a new anticasino group comes at a critical time for the Suffolk Downs project, just one month before it goes before the voters. No casino applicant can win a license unless the voters of the host community back the project at the ballot box.

Suffolk Downs, which straddles the East Boston-Revere city line, must win support in both communities. The Boston vote will be confined to the voting ward of East Boston, as permitted under the 2011 casino law.

The vote is scheduled for the date of the mayoral final election, which should guarantee a healthy turnout.

Citywide polling on the Suffolk Downs proposal shows opinions are divided. A recent Globe poll suggested 53 percent of likely Boston voters supported the casino. The poll did not include enough respondents from East Boston to draw conclusions about the level of support in the neighborhood that will decide the fate of the project.

Wynn Resorts won the support of Everett voters in June. Milford votes Nov. 19.

For underfunded casino opponents, including No Eastie Casino, winning elections with little or no money is a monumental task against corporate giants with access to as much money as needed to finance sophisticated political campaigns.

That is why nearly every anticasino group, religious or not, talks about the fight in David vs. Goliath terms.

“They can’t out-money a casino,” said Maurice Cunningham, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “But you have to be able to get your message out, and that does take money.”

One advantage the new anti-casino group could provide is a “ready-made organization” for casino opponents, he said. “You do have serious-minded people who go to church and absorb these messages. The potential is there.”

Suffolk Downs declined Monday to comment on the formation of the group.

Mark Arsenault can be reached at mark.arsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.
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