Major secular newspapers have run stories in recent weeks focusing on why a proposal to legalize casino gambling didn't make it out of Kentucky's General Assembly again this year. They appeared to conclude that strong Baptist influence in Frankfort doomed the idea.
USA Today, the Courier-Journal of Louisville and the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that Baptists make up more than 1 million of the Kentucky's 4.4 million population, and that almost half the state Senate and more than one-third of the House identify as Baptists.
Baptists have long opposed casinos, saying they prey on human weakness for profit and that they would especially hurt Kentucky's poor who might be lured into losing the little money they have in hopes of a big payoff.
The newspapers reported that Baptists hold an abundance of key leadership positions in both the House and Senate, including Gregory who is chairwoman of the Senate Enrollment Committee. Baptists in leadership positions have had a noticeable impact on what gets through the state legislature.
"It's no surprise that myself and many other legislators cast votes that reflect our religious beliefs," Sen. Sara Beth Gregory, a Baptist from Monticello, said. "These votes are not only a reflection of ourselves, but of the people we represent in our districts. Our values guide us as legislators, and I believe our constituents expect that to be the case. That's why they elected us — to be their voice in Frankfort."
The newspapers credited Baptist influence with passage of Kentucky's ban on gay marriage in 2004, as well as Gov. Steve Beshear's inability to get legislative approval for a constitutional amendment on gambling that he's been pushing hard for the past six years.
Beshear has pushed casino legislation every year since he became governor in 2007.
Kentucky Baptist Convention executive director Paul Chitwood has played a lead role in opposing casinos.
Chitwood's offensive strategy this year included advertising on Christian radio stations, devoting time to secular talk radio, and communicating directly with the Kentucky Convention's 750,000 members about the gambling issue through a video sent to Baptist churches across the state.
All other religious groups, including Catholics, are eclipsed by Baptists in the General Assembly, according to a directory compiled by the Legislative Research Commission that includes the religious affiliations of state lawmakers.
"The numbers aren't surprising, considering Kentucky is home to more than a million Southern Baptists and a larger number of other Baptist groups," Chitwood said. "That's a powerful voting bloc that has the capability to change the face of politics in the state."
Baptists also hold powerful leadership positions in the state legislature, including Gregory who is chairwoman of the Senate Enrollment Committee.
"Holding so many leadership positions gives Baptists incredible sway inside the Capitol," Chitwood said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Roger Alford is communications director for the Kentucky Baptist Convention.)