Bingo returned to several Arkansas parishes last week, but many more churches, schools and Knights of Columbus councils are pondering whether they want to offer the games again.
On July 31 a new Arkansas law was enacted to allow charitable organizations to offer a limited number of bingo games each week and sell raffle tickets after getting a license from the Department of Finance and Administration.
Three years ago Bishop J. Peter Sartain instructed all parishes and schools to stop playing bingo because state law banned gambling except at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs and Southland Greyhound Park in West Memphis.
In November 2006 Arkansas voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the state constitution to allow bingo and raffles only for established charitable, religious and philanthropic organizations. The Arkansas General Assembly had to meet this spring to create the legislation before bingo and raffles were legal in the state.
As of July 30, 20 Catholic churches and Knights of Columbus councils were granted one-year state licenses. The state had handed out 149 licenses by July 30 to operators, distributors and manufacturers.
Parishes and councils said they wanted to offer the games again for two reasons --to raise money for church and school programs and to offer a social outlet for their parishioners.
While many people have memories of parents and children gathered at parish festivals playing bingo for small prizes, the state law will no longer permit it. Organizations must buy a $25 temporary license or a $100 annual license. All participants must be 18 years old and use only approved bingo cards, known as faces, with the Arkansas seal on the free space. All faces and bingo equipment must be purchased from authorized distributors and are taxed.
On the first day of legal bingo games in the state, at least two Knights of Columbus Councils, in Helena and Wynne, reported offering the games.
"It's a big benefit that it's back," said Father Joe Marconi, pastor of St. Mary Church in Helena. "I think it's wonderful that we have bingo over here. It really brings a lot of life, not only to the parish, but the whole community."
"Especially for the small, rural churches, I think it's wonderful," he said.
Rick Esquivel, the Knights of Columbus grand knight in Wynne, said his group played July 31 and would offer bingo on every second and fourth Tuesday.
He said the Knights want to help the parish and local charities in Wynne, which is why the law was created.
"The net profit that we bring in is going directly to the charities that are in our community," he said.
In Conway, a weekly bingo night will return to the parish at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 13. David Hambuchen, school board president at St. Joseph School in Conway, said money raised will support the school. He acknowledged that playing bingo will require more know-how and time for the school and it could eat into their profits unless they raise the fees they charge for playing.
"This is not your mother's bingo," he said.
Parishes are already seeing problems with the new law.
Bob Geurtz, business manager at Christ the King Church in Fort Smith, said his parish would like to raise money by offering the occasional bingo game or raffle, but he is not sure how much to charge for a bingo game or raffle ticket in light of the state taxes. Each bingo face is taxed 1 cent. Equipment is taxed at 10 percent.
"In the past we never paid anything because we just used cards that we already owned," he said.
"That will be an expense to our carnival and thus reduce the profit. Right now we charge 50 cents a game for one person to sit down and play one bingo game with one card," he said.
Rosemary Sellers, business manager at St. Michael Church in Van Buren, said, "I think it's going to make it a lot more complicated on just little churches trying to have fall festivals with bingo. We will have to decide if it's going to be worth it to do it next year."
Sellers said requiring bingo players to be 18 years old makes it harder for family-oriented parish events. "Kids at festivals love to play bingo," she said.
Erik Pellin, chairman of the Tontitown Grape Festival at St. Joseph Church, said bingo would be played the last two days of the event, which runs from Aug. 14 to 18. While the festival is a family event, Pellin said he did not anticipate a problem with only adults being able to play.
"The kids under the age of 18, I think the majority of them would rather ride the carnival rides or play the games," he said. "I think bingo, in the years that we haven't been able to do it, most of the disappointment has come from the older generation."
He said he hopes other Catholic groups don't get discouraged from offering bingo and raffles at their events.
"It's an easy process. I made a couple of phone calls to the guys in Little Rock. They were easy to deal with. The rules are pretty easy to abide by," Pellin said. "I wouldn't discourage it for anybody. I think the rules were put in there for a good reason, and as Catholics we have to abide by them."
Dennis Lee, chancellor for administrative affairs for the Diocese of Little Rock, said parishes and schools will have to decide for themselves whether they want to offer bingo and raffles.
"They need to be licensed and follow the strict interpretation of the rules," he said. "We aren't going to say you should or shouldn't do it."
Lee said there is a possibility the Department of Finance and Administration or the General Assembly could change the regulations after receiving more public comments.
"These are emergency regulations," he said. "What will happen later is they will issue regular rules. They will replace these at some point with non-emergency rules."
Tara Little and Malea Hargett contributed to this story.
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