The tortoise and the hare and a gambling tale

I am not a gambler. I work too hard for my money.

I thank God for that special blessing because I’ve heard and read many stories about what a gambling addiction can do. When the thrill of plopping down cash, or bitcoins, on the nose of a horse or a 19-year-old freshman quarterback with girlfriend troubles takes precedence over groceries, medicine and electricity, it ruins the lives of entire families, not just the life of the gambler.

Gambling is part of our human DNA and, if truth be told, of our Catholic DNA. When I was growing up at St. Leo the Great, I can remember the parish fair in the “old school” auditorium, where air-conditioning was pumped in with a large tube through the transom of the side door to provide the necessary creature comforts for one of the most elaborate gambling halls east of Vegas.

The kiddies stayed outside while the men played dice and other games of chance, and they weren’t playing bingo or waiting to see where the needle of the spinning wheel stopped so that the winner could pick up a doberge cake for Sunday dessert.

Maybe the only organism on earth with a longer history than the gambler is the cockroach, which, according to fossil records dates back to 300 million B.C. – approximately 70 million years before the dinosaurs.

So, no, gambling in our time is not going away and will never go away, although the church has come to a recognition in the last three decades that promoting dice and blackjack isn’t exactly a proper way to fund the mission of Jesus.

In the early 1980s, parish and school fairs in the newly established Diocese of Houma-­Thibodaux regularly used games of chance – including slot machines – as their cash cow. Some parishes took in nearly 50 percent of their annual revenue through their fairs.

One game didn’t bring in a lot of money but illustrated the lengths to which we, as church, had slouched toward Gomorrah in an attempt to bring in a buck. The game’s playing field was a simple wooden platform with dividing rails that produced seven lanes.

For turtle races.

Even without a Daily Racing Form, you knew it was a fast track (although maybe Lane 3 was waxed to give that “lucky” turtle a sprinter’s edge). First turtle across the finish line 10 feet away provided some railbird with first-place cash. No one knows if the turtles were running on PEDs or Tabasco sauce.

In 1986, Houma-Thibodaux Bishop Warren Boudreaux had seen enough of the ill effects of gambling at diocesan fairs and issued an edict phasing out all forms of gambling over the next five years as a means of fund-raising. He essentially said, “We’re better than this.”

“It seems to me unworthy of our God that we should have to use these means to support his Gospel and his church,” Bishop Boudreaux said.

For its part, the Archdiocese of New Orleans prohibits any type of casino-type gambling (dice, roulette, hi-lo, blackjack, etc.). As long as all civil laws are completely observed, bingo, keno, pull tabs and raffles are permitted. Bunco is considered a game of chance and is prohibited. No Catholic parish, school, institution or organization is allowed to sell or distribute Powerball tickets.

In light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision allowing sports betting in any state that wishes to provide it, how much of a stretch is it that Louisiana lawmakers, despite their current prohibition, will change course and vote it in on the wings of the siren song we’ve all heard before: The state will get its gambling cut and use the money, ever so carefully, to fill its budget gap for education, health care and your favorite pothole in Lakeview.

At least the state Legislature, facing public scrutiny, killed a bill that would have extended Harrah’s exclusive contract in New Orleans for 20 years even though that contract isn’t up for another six years. It looked as though the fix was in to hand out a plum contract without competitive bids.

This just in from the Turtle Race Gazette: Sports betting will be coming to Louisiana.

Wanna bet?

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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