The Maryland Catholic Conference, which has taken a hard-line stance on social issues including abortion and gay marriage, said yesterday that it opposed slot-machine gambling in the state but encouraged its faithful to make up their own minds.
The Roman Catholic organization reiterated an anti-slots stance it has held for years. But in a two-page background paper that will be distributed to pastors for use in their parishes, the group conceded that "Catholic voters may legitimately disagree" and urged them to go to the polls as educated voters.
The paper lays out the pros and cons of slots and notes that "gambling is not intrinsically evil or immoral."
"The activity itself doesn't rise to the level of other issues of grave concern to the church," said Mary Ellen Russell, who was recently tapped to become executive director of the Catholic Conference, which lobbies in Annapolis and Washington on public policy.
A range of special-interest groups have staked out positions regarding the Nov. 4 referendum on a state constitutional amendment that would allow 15,000 slot machines at five locations. A large coalition of African-American ministers is working to defeat the slots proposal along with grass-roots activists, while business groups and labor unions are fighting for its passage.
Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Catholic, is backing slots as part of a long-term solution to budget shortfalls.
Maryland is home to about 1 million Catholics and nearly 300 parishes, according to the conference.
The Maryland Catholic Conference has a history of political activism and helped to lead opposition to a 1992 referendum on a state law endorsing abortion rights. Anti-abortion activists succeeded in putting the law to a referendum after it was passed by the General Assembly but failed by a wide margin to get it overturned by popular vote.
Catholic teaching doesn't prohibit gambling but cautions that it should be done prudently because it can lead to greed and addiction, said Mathew Schmalz, a professor of religious studies at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., the oldest Catholic college in New England. Catholic churches often hold bingo fundraisers, Schmalz pointed out.
"The Catholic church has a hierarchy of moral issues," Schmalz said. "At the top would be issues like abortion that do involve very clear Catholic teaching, and then there are other issues such as gambling. ... There's no right to gamble in Catholic doctrine, but there's also no prohibition against it."
The conference noted that state officials intend to use the revenue from slots on "worthy public goals" such as public education, and that budget shortfalls could mean additional cuts in aid for the poor without new sources of revenue for state coffers. But the organization, which lobbied last year against legislation sending the slots issue to voters, also raised concerns about crime and the disproportionate impact on low-income residents.
In its opinion, the conference concluded: "The common good is not served and human dignity is not promoted when budget needs are addressed through revenue streams likely to increase burdens on low-income families and expand social ills."
WHAT IT SAID
* The Maryland Catholic Conference, created by bishops in the state, has long opposed legalizing slot-machine gambling.
* It said Catholic voters considering the Nov. 4 slots referendum may legitimately disagree with its official stance.