Mississippi lawmakers dealt a defeat to the state’s Southern Baptists, voting Monday to allow floating casinos damaged by Hurricane Katrina to rebuild up to 800 feet inland.

“We think it’s a sad day in Mississippi when money is placed over morality,” William Perkins, editor of the The Baptist Record, said in the Associated Press. “The Bible says you can’t serve two masters–God and money. You’ll hate one and love the other. We believe the vote today proved that Mississippi does love money.”

The Mississippi Baptist Convention, the state’s largest religious group, marshaled forces with the Tupelo-based American Family Association to urge legislators to block a change allowing existing casinos, which currently can be built only over waters of the Mississippi River or the Gulf of Mexico, to be moved onshore.

The change, approved 60-53 by the House late Friday and by the Senate Monday 29-21, was put on the agenda of a special session by Gov. Haley Barbour. Most of 13 casinos destroyed by Katrina were waiting on the outcome before deciding whether to rebuild, saying investing in floating barges isn’t worth the risk.

“Mississippi Baptists have been opposed to legalized gambling from the start, and each of us should be willing to contact our individual legislators before the September 27 special session to let them know how we feel about the ever-expanding influence of the gambling/political complex in Mississippi,” Perkins wrote earlier.

That prompted a response from columnist in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, noting that Baptists dominated the Legislature when it first legalized gaming back in 1990. Of the 174-member Legislature in 1990, 51 percent identified themselves as Baptists, observed columnist Sid Salter.

Trying to stop casinos, which employ 15,000 Mississippi residents, from rebuilding, “is like a church fighting to stop a grocery store destroyed by a tornado from rebuilding because it sells beer,” Salter wrote.

Perkins shot back that the vote 15 years ago to legalize gambling has no bearing on the current situation.

“We fail to understand what a 15-year-old vote has to do with the year 2005,” Perkins said, quoted by Agape Press. “The newspaper for which Mr. Salter works … was once considered one of the most racist papers in the nation, if not the most racist. So … every time they have an article that has anything to do with race, perhaps we should point out their well-documented history of racism.”

In a follow-up column, Salter acknowledged that the 2005 lawmakers passed their bill closer to party lines. In the Senate, 15 Baptists voted against the bill, while 13 voted in favor of it.

He also noted that religious opponents of gambling found some strange allies. Some casinos were opposing an original proposal to move casinos in 1,500 feet, because they feared it would give an advantage to a competitor.

“In that scenario, the political battle became like that of churches and bootleggers being on the same side of local-option liquor elections in upstate counties,” Salter wrote. “When so-called ‘sin taxes’ are involved, strange bedfellows follow.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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