Church raffles still against the law

Efforts in House to legalize such fundraisers fail

gnsmith@thestate.comApril 30, 2010 

Churches in South Carolina better think twice before they hold their next raffle or cake walk.

Unbeknownst to many churches and charities, raffles are illegal in the state. The education lottery is South Carolina's only legal form of gambling.

Repeated efforts in the House of Representatives on Thursday to allow churches, schools and charities to hold these fundraisers failed.

Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, and his backers fell short Thursday of a two-thirds majority needed to waive a House rule that bills be on the House calendar for a day.

Had the bill gained approval from the General Assembly, it would have appeared as a question on the November ballot. Voters would have ultimately decided whether the raffles should be legalized.

Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, the bill's chief sponsor, said he was perplexed by opposition to the measure.

"In the bill, we have defined who can hold raffles very narrowly. Charities are holding them already. I really don't understand what's the problem," Merrill said, adding that the bill prohibits gambling by machine or on live sporting events and requires that at least 90 percent of the money raised from raffles go to charity.

The bill also bans outside contractors from conducting the raffles.

Merrill came up with the bill after his local Rotary Club phoned. Members had been told by police that their annual duck race, where rubber ducks "race" down a river to benefit a charitable cause, was illegal.

Gregg Turner, executive director of the state Lions Club, has advised clubs around the state to cease raffles out of fear members would get arrested on the misdemeanor crime. In 2008, law enforcement - responding to a complaint - threatened a Tega Cay club that was raffling off a motorcycle.

Turner said Lions Clubs across the state are losing $500,000 a year since abandoning the raffles, meaning less money for the free eyeglasses, eye surgeries and hearing aids for the uninsured.

"I'm frustrated with it," Turner said.

Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester, one of the bill's chief opponents, said the bill was written too loosely and has the potential to lead to more serious types of gambling in the Palmetto State.

Other lawmakers noted it was a similar benign-looking change in law that brought video poker to South Carolina, which took a decade to eliminate.

"This is an easy thing to make fun of, to make reasonable arguments for," Delleney said. "But when you're dealing with the gaming industry and their allies, you need to be very careful. It needs a thorough vetting."

Oran Smith, director of the Palmetto Family Council, said the bill is a ruse.

"They're using an issue everyone's for to get a lot more," he said. "They're using a legitimate concern and trying to shoehorn gambling into it."

Similar gaming bills have met defeat in the House this year, including one to legalize friendly card and dice games held in homes and a second bill to allow charities to host bingo games.

It's a similar scene on the Senate side, where raffle and card game legislation is being held up by senators.

Proponents of the gaming bills say they'll try again next year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Smith at (803) 771-8658.

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