By: Theo Sealy & Rogan Smith
Two top clergymen, a leading hotelier, a business consultant and a college professor locked horns tighter than ever last night over the controversial gambling issue.
Retired Anglican Archbishop Drexel Gomez, Bahamas Christian Council (BCC) President Dr. Ranford Patterson, Kerzner International VP of Public Affairs & Retail Services Ed Fields, business consultant, Paul Major and educator and civil activist, Margo Blackwell all participated in a Jones Communications Network (JCN) town meeting series at the Harry C. Moore library where they each took turns highlighting the benefits or pitfalls of gambling.
The panel was split.
Opponents argued that gambling was destructive and against God’s will, while proponents touted the economic benefits that could be gained from its legalisation.
The Christie administration has announced plans to hold a referendum before the end of the year so that Bahamians can decide whether they want gambling legalised.
The BCC has repeatedly stressed that it is “diametrically opposed” to gambling and it didn’t stray from that premise last night.
“To engage in this gambling . . . one is going counter to what Jesus stands for and for what the church is here to promote. We believe that gambling is, in its final analysis, an affront to God,” Archbishop Gomez said.
“Our problem in the church is we have been compromised by our members in that so many of our members gamble and so many of our members do not really believe what the church teaches us because if they really believed, they would apply it in our lives. So, there are a lot of persons who belong to the church who participate in gambling because they aren’t putting into practice the teachings of the gospel. Gambling produces social dislocation. That is not disputed even by persons who engage in gambling.”
Mr. Major, meantime, said the church cannot legislate morality.
“It comes down to a matter of civil liberty – people deciding what they want to do with their disposable income,” he said.
“The only ones who don’t benefit from gambling are the government and the citizens who don’t gamble. At this stage in our development and enlightenment we should not be so concerned about whether Bahamians gamble.”
Dr. Patterson said with gambling, “we can only lose, not win.”
“The negative effects outweigh benefits. It can destroy a family. Every day in our ministries we are confronted with persons who are marginalised, persons who are experiencing loss, persons whose lives are falling through the cracks and that is why we feel so strongly about this because we see the devastation. That’s where our passion comes from,” Dr. Patterson said.
“Think of the devastation that we now see and the proliferation of the web shops. We believe it’s only going to get worse and our people are going to suffer as a result of it.”
But, one audience member chastised the church for its weak arguments on the controversial issue.
“I have been listening to a lot of debates on this gambling subject and it seems that the church is relying on the argument of morality. As it stands right now those arguments are not standing up very well against the arguments that these other panellists are presenting. Why isn’t the church presenting strong arguments about the economic and social impacts of the numbers business? These are the issues we need to present as opposed to what is morally incorrect,” she said
Mr. Major, meantime, sought to dispel the notion that the ‘house’ always wins.
He told the panel and attendees that two number houses “went broke” because they couldn’t pay out winnings.
“On average 60 to 70 per cent of winnings go back out,” he said.
When challenged to substantiate his claims by providing the statistics, Mr. Major responded, “Trust me, trust me.”
He later said the numbers business has attracted 150,000 account holders.
He said 120,000 of those individuals have online accounts, while the remaining 30,000 individuals are walk-in customers to various web shops throughout the country.
Mr. Major suggested that the numbers business is not only popular and a cultural norm, but is one of the biggest contributors to the Bahamian economy.
Ms. Blackwell, careful to “stay far away from moral and social values as possible,” said she felt that Bahamians are being denied a right to gamble.
“I am a young lady who has lived her whole life being discriminated against in an independent Bahamas by a constitution that allows people who are not Bahamian to do something in my country that I am not allowed to do. I have a real problem with that,” she said.
Mr. Fields, meantime, said the gambling issue is not about its decriminalisation, but its liberalisation.
Churches have over the years demonised gambling in The Bahamas, but many have turned to major resorts for donations even though a good chunk of their revenue comes from casino dollars.
Mr. Fields said in his 16 years at the Paradise Island resort, he has received a letter from every single denomination in The Bahamas requesting donations.
He later questioned the difference between church raffles and the numbers business.
“Either you are hot or you are cold. The reality is that if I buy a raffle ticket my intent is to win over someone else…we are in a quagmire trying to justify this thing. Either we like them all or we wipe them all out. It cannot be a case of juggling. It cannot be that it is okay for the church to gamble through raffling but it is not okay for Bahamians to do the same through gambling at numbers houses,” Mr. Fields said.
“Yes numbers is illegal and perhaps there is a problem with the concept that because it is illegal on the books the donation from that illegal gambling is a problem. But there is not a problem with the church asking donations from an entity that has legal gambling. So gambling is okay if it is legal? That must be what the message is.”
Mr. Fields said if Bahamians vote to legalise the numbers business, the government could take a percentage of the money and set up counselling for addicts.
Gambling proponents say if the numbers business is legalised it could fund various government initiatives and provide millions of dollars to the public purse.
“It would do well for us here in the country if we go ahead with legalising the numbers business. It can contribute significantly to health care, sporting and education, overall helping with national development. We need to move forward with this and try to look at the positive side of how beneficial gambling can be, economically, to The Bahamas,” attorney Wallace Rolle said.
JCN CEO Wendall Jones moderated the town hall meeting.