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Christian right, political left unite in opposing casinos

Fight spawns a most unlikely alliance

A rendering of the Wynn casino proposed in Everett.

Wynn Everett

A rendering of the Wynn casino proposed in Everett.

Politics famously makes strange bedfellows, but this odd coupling is as strange as it gets: On the issue of casino gambling, the liberal left and the Christian right share common ground, united in hoping to keep the gambling industry out of Massachusetts.

“For all the polarization that goes on in Massachusetts, this is a momentous opportunity for us to come together on a common cause,” said Kris Mineau, president emeritus of the Massachusetts Family Institute, which is associated with Focus on the Family, the socially conservative organization founded by evangelical Christian author James Dobson.

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Casino gambling, Mineau said, is “a regressive tax on the poor,” attracting gamblers who cannot afford to lose what money they have. The Massachusetts Family Institute “will be working to get out the vote in November,” in favor of repeal, he said.

It is a rare case in which Mineau sounds a lot like Ben Wright, director of Progressive Massachusetts, a left-leaning statewide grass-roots organization.

“A progressive economy does not put in big businesses that suck money out of the small businesses,” said Wright. “We’re obviously very supportive of the repeal.”

Polling in Massachusetts has long found that people who identify themselves as “very liberal” or “very conservative” are a significant part of the political base of the anticasino movement, said casino specialist Clyde Barrow, chairman of the political science department at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, and formerly of the University of Massachusetts system.

Casino gambling, considered both as an economic and a social issue, “cuts across all the traditional divisions,” said Barrow. “It’s not a Republican or Democrat issue or a liberal-conservative issue. It crosses the political and ideological spectrum.”

Casino gambling ‘cuts across all the traditional divisions. . . . It crosses the political and ideological spectrum.’

Political scientist Clyde Barrow 
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John Ribeiro, chairman of the statewide campaign to repeal the casino law, said his group has received donations from liberals and religious conservatives, though he has not yet noticed coordination between the political opposites.

Question 3 would ban casinos from Massachusetts, reversing a law approved by state lawmakers three years ago that authorized up to three resort-style casinos, one each in three regions of the state, and one slot machine parlor.

The state gambling commission awarded the slot parlor license to a Penn National Gaming project in Plainville and has promised the Western Massachusetts resort license to MGM Resorts, which has proposed a casino in Springfield. The commission plans to grant the Greater Boston license next month, while the Southeastern Massachusetts license is on a later timetable.

Penn and MGM spent millions fighting each other in Springfield, and tens of millions against each other in a referendum battle in Maryland two years ago. But, for now, the rivals are in unlikely alliance, as members of a political coalition defending the 2011 casino law. The coalition includes other entities that are not natural political allies, such as business-backed chambers of commerce and labor unions, “all coming together to support gaming because of the real jobs and real benefits that come with it,” said Justine Griffin, a spokeswoman for the coalition defending the casino law.

A Boston Globe poll this week found that 50 percent of likely voters support keeping the casino law, while 41 percent want to repeal it. The figures have been consistent across the past several weekly polls.

The repeal campaign is quietly underway, with both sides focusing at the moment on building networks of supporters for street-level campaigning and get-out-the-vote activities.

Casino opponents, who expect to be widely outspent by the gambling companies in the campaign, will lean heavily this fall on the influence of clergy who oppose casinos, said Ribeiro.

Religious leaders played a prominent role in several municipal referendums on casinos last year and were especially active in East Boston, where opponents defeated a $1 billion casino proposal.

“They are a natural ally of ours,” Ribeiro said. “We are looking for them to help activate their members for the fight.”

Bishop Douglas John Fisher, leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and a strong supporter of casino repeal, said he will encourage clergy in the diocese’s 65 parishes to speak about the casino repeal from the pulpit and to host community forums on the issue.

Fisher’s crisp political message is an economic argument against casinos, cast in the language of faith: “Jesus comes to bring good news to the poor. Casinos are bad for the poor. We follow Jesus.”

The anticasino campaign can expect some more help in the next two to three weeks, when the state’s top Roman Catholic leaders, including Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, are expected to weigh in on the repeal campaign through the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the church’s public policy office. James F. Driscoll, director of the conference, said in an e-mail that he expects the state’s bishops will endorse the repeal.

The Rev. Richard McGowan, a Boston College casino specialist, said gambling itself is not a sin under Catholic teaching, though the state’s bishops have historically opposed casinos which they believe would hurt the poor.

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