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War on gambling consumes United Methodist activist

11/25/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: A photograph and audio clips are available with this report.

By Jackie Campbell*

LINK: Click to open full size version of image

Dianne Berlin (left) talks with Guy Clark, chairman of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, during a meeting of the anti-gambling board. After nearly 10 years of opposing the expansion of gambling in Pennsylvania, Berlin has become a central figure in an anti-gambling network that reaches across the United States and overseas to places such as England and Australia. A UMNS photo by Carl Bechtold. Photo number 03-495, Accompanies UMNS #572, 11/25/03
MANHEIM, Pa. (UMNS) - After nearly 10 years of opposing the expansion of gambling in Pennsylvania, Dianne Berlin has become a central figure in an anti-gambling network that reaches across the United States and overseas to places such as England and Australia.

The gray-haired United Methodist activist uses the Internet to organize groups and study the effects of gambling upon participants, cities that host casinos, and states that sponsor lotteries. She may not be as well funded as the multinational corporations lobbying to expand their gambling empires, but she makes up for it with a passion for fighting social ills.

Undaunted by legislative setbacks and aware of the odds against her, Berlin works without pay to empower citizens to oppose gambling facilities in their communities. She spends about six hours a day, seven days a week, organizing conferences, developing resources, rallying citizens and monitoring developments. She's testified at local, state and national hearings on the issue.

Using the Internet, Berlin has developed an international network of gambling foes and researchers.

"Dianne is indefatigable in terms of energy and passion," said the Rev. Tom Grey, the United Methodist clergyman who serves as executive director of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling. Berlin is a vice chairperson of the organization.

"The individual role Dianne has played in terms of resourcing and connecting people is crucial," he added.

"It's our people against their money and political muscle and the political weight of the government, so anti-gambling groups must work together," Grey said. "The fight against gambling attracts people from all sides of the political spectrum and a variety of interest groups, from churches to good government organizations to economic development agencies," he said. "Berlin has helped connect these diverse groups."

"I have been involved in this battle since Pennsylvanians Against Gambling Expansion (PAGE) was formed as an effort by A United Methodist Witness in Pennsylvania when I served on that board," Berlin said.

A former elementary teacher and member of Salem United Methodist Church in Manheim, Berlin served several years on the board of Witness, a United Methodist advocacy organization. She also became an activist on drug and alcohol-related issues.

In the 1990s, at about the time the Witness board invited Grey to help form PAGE, Berlin became outraged when Pennsylvania National Gaming, which operated a horse-racing track in York, asked the state Horse Racing Commission to approve an off-track betting parlor in East Lampeter Township.

"This is a community that had voted against allowing nonprofit groups to operate small games of chance," she said. "I thought, 'I will help these people.'"

Berlin was not surprised her efforts failed. The law does not give much voice to citizens, she said. Now the battle centers on slot machines.

Horse racing is a $200 million industry in Pennsylvania, but attendance at tracks has declined dramatically, and industry lobbyists believe adding slot machines will revive interest. Racing officials also claim revenue leaves Pennsylvania because residents flock to adjoining states where tracks have slots and casinos.

Last June, the Pennsylvania Senate voted 27-22 to permit slots at up to four existing tracks and as many as four new ones.

When the bill reached the state House of Representatives, the number of slot locations was expanded to 11, and the House allowed slots at two sites not tied to race tracks - one in downtown Philadelphia and another within the seven-county southwestern Pennsylvania area. However, the final number of venues is tied up in a political stalemate.

Many legislators say they support allowing slot machines and taxing the revenue from them as a means of improving education funding while reducing reliance on the property taxes.

Hoping to capitalize on the legislative stalemate, A United Methodist Witness in Pennsylvania, along with the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, issued a package of bulletin inserts, announcements and background information to encourage church members to contact their legislators with the message that "expanding gambling is not a favorable way to raise revenues for essential government services."

Studies show that for every dollar of tax revenue that the state would get from gambling, there would be a cost to the state of $3 in social services, according to Berlin. Citing data from the National Gambling Impact Study Commission and University of Illinois Professor John Kindt, she notes that the state costs would be reflected in increased demands on law enforcement, the courts, the prisons and programs that address social ills related to gambling addiction - divorce, suicide, homelessness, violence.

Berlin points to the Pennsylvania Lottery as a prime example of the instability of relying on revenue from gambling. Authorized in 1972 as a self-sustaining venture to fund prescription drugs and other programs for seniors, the lottery operates in the red, with the taxpayers funding its administrative costs, she said.

State lotteries have led to a change in attitude toward gambling, she said. "The majority of people who are gambling today would never have dreamed of gambling with the mob. We have sanitized it because it's legalized. It's worse now because we have removed the stigma that used to be there for gambling."

It's vital for concerned citizens to let their legislators know what they think, she said. "Any place where citizens get involved, they can make a difference." She encourages writing letters, particularly letters to newspaper editors.
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"Gambling is theft by permission," Berlin said at an October public meeting to fight a $400 million racetrack and casino proposed for Palmer Township. "This is a public health issue. Don't be silent."

The United Methodist Church officially opposes gambling in all forms. The denomination's Social Principles call gambling "a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic and spiritual life, and destructive of good government." The church urges Christians to abstain from gambling and to "minister to those victimized by the practice."
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*Campbell is a staff writer for the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference.


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