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Utah was opposed to gambling long before statehood

Published: Friday, July 31 2015 4:43 a.m. MDT

In this March 16, 2012, file photo a gambling table is seen at Hollywood Casino, Friday, in Bangor, Maine. (Associated Press) In this March 16, 2012, file photo a gambling table is seen at Hollywood Casino, Friday, in Bangor, Maine. (Associated Press)

Even before Utah became a state, early leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made it clear that gambling wasn't welcome.

Brigham Young, an early LDS Church president, set the tone in an 1866 sermon: "Let a judge decree that … a gambling saloon shall be established in our city, and we will give him the privilege to get out of the city as quickly as he can."

Utah's prohibition on gambling remained in place until the 1920s, when betting on horse races was allowed for two years.

But the practice was suspended by the Utah Legislature in 1927, amid concerns of the "moral impact of the sport, eventual loss of support from the business community and most important, charges of corruption against the state racing commissioners," according to a Utah Historical Quarterly article published in 1989.

In the succeeding years, Utah newspapers chronicled the occasional community controversy over illegal gambling, which ranged from police raids of businesses in Price that were operating slot machines to police busting a bingo game run by Catholic nuns in the 1970s.

It wasn't until the 1990s, that an organized effort surfaced to change the law; a group of Utah horsemen who lobbied state lawmakers to lift the restriction on pari-mutuel wagering.

The American Quarter Horse Association had informed Utah racers that it would no longer sanction horse races in Utah because of liability concerns. Horse breeders, jockeys and trainers asked the Utah Legislature to form a regulatory commission to ensure races run in Utah were safe and legal so that national breed organizations would recognize the results.

However, the horse lobby did not want a state subsidy to fund the regulatory body. It wanted legislation to legalize pari-mutuel betting, which would make the activity self-sustaining, they said.

The legislation never surfaced after intense opposition by anti-gambling interests. Then-Gov. Norm Bangerter said he would veto any such legislation.

As a compromise, a Monticello lawmaker sponsored a bill that would have provided a $500,000 subsidy to assist Utah's horse industry and establish a horse commission. The bill passed, but the funding was cut to $200,000.

The governor let the bill become law without his signature but exercised the seldom-used line-item veto to cut the funding by half, which effectively eliminated the second year of the program.

Supporters of pari-mutuel betting said Bangerter's actions pushed them to conduct a statewide petition drive to put the issue on the general election ballot in November 1992. Organizers collected more than 100,000 qualifying signatures in 100 days to put the issue a vote.

The relative merits of the proposal were hotly debated until Election Day, when Utah voters rejected the initiative 60 percent to 40 percent.

Backers blamed the initiative's defeat on the opponents' fat war chest and the involvement of the LDS Church, which issued the following statement in January 1992 to reaffirm its long-standing opposition to gambling.

"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opposes gambling in its various forms. Experience has clearly shown gambling to be harmful to the human spirit, financially destructive of individuals and families, and detrimental to the moral climate of communities. The attitude of the Church on this matter has been consistent and clear over a period of more than a century.

"Starting with President Brigham Young and affirmed most recently by President Ezra Taft Benson, Latter-day Saint leaders have denounced gambling as an evil that 'tends to break down the moral and spiritual strength of the people.'

"Utah now faces renewed and vigorous attempts to legalize gambling, including a state-operated lottery, charitable gambling and pari-mutuel betting. We regard these efforts as a moral issue and unalterably oppose such proposals on grounds of private and public morality, as well as a threat to the cultivation and maintenance of strong family and community values."

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