Baptists to help track down illegal machines - Sunday 12th of June 2005

 South Carolina's largest religious group has volunteered to help police find illegal gambling machines.

The Southern Baptist Convention will use its 725,000 members and 2,000 churches to seek out the illegal machines starting this Friday. The group plans to post pictures on its Web site of machines considered illegal by the State Law Enforcement Division while encouraging members to report machines they think are illegal to a Columbia office. The office will then forward the tips to state police.

SLED agents have seized 3,400 illegal gambling machines since video poker was outlawed in 2000.

"We're averaging almost 100 per month," said SLED Chief Robert Stewart.

Church literature and the denomination's newspaper, which has a circulation of 100,000, will run articles about the effort, said Southern Baptist Convention member Joe Mack.

Mack served as the church's liaison to lawmakers during Statehouse battles about the machines. The church is going to act as SLED's eyes and ears, Mack said.

But efforts to identify just which machines are illegal could get harder. A Charleston-area company is asking the South Carolina Supreme Court to grant the right for a jury trial each time police seize a machine and claim it's illegal.

That could cause major problems for police and prosecutors because the same type of machine could be considered illegal by one jury and legal by another, Assistant Attorney General Bob Cook said.

"The operators of the industry have chosen not to surrender," Cook said. "They have continuously fought to make video gaming legal."

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