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Episcopal Church committee supports Passamaquoddy racino, sovereignty

BANGOR, Maine - The Episcopal Committee on Indian Relations has come out in support of the Passamaquoddy Tribe's racino proposal, calling moral objections against the tribe's efforts ''highly hypocritical and specious given the current prevalence of gambling within Maine.''

The Indian Relations committee, a group working within the Episcopal Diocese of Maine, voted unanimously Oct. 8 to issue a statement supporting the Passamaquoddy Tribe's ''Yes on 1'' campaign, a grass-roots effort to approve its racino in a statewide referendum Nov. 6.

Meanwhile, the Christian Civic League of Maine announced the formation of a political action committee to oppose the racino. The CCL represents a group of evangelical churches and individuals aligned with national right-wing Christian groups, including James Dobson's Focus on the Family, according to CCL's Web site,

The tribe plans to build and operate a commercial harness racing track in Calais with up to 1,500 machines, high-stakes bingo, a hotel and a conference center on fee land.

The Committee on Indian Relations remained neutral on a gaming referendum in 2003 when Maine voters rejected a tribal casino, but supported Hollywood Slots, a Bangor racino owned by non-Native out-of-state investors.

''We felt the first vote was kind of a racist vote; that if it was OK for white folks to have these slot machines next to a race track in Bangor, then indeed it's OK for the Passamaquoddy to have that Down East,'' the Rev. Roger Smith, the committee chairman, told Indian Country Today. ''Down East'' refers to the easternmost part of the state in Washington County, a poverty-stricken area where the unemployment rate hovers around 50 percent.

''So we decided that this time we would not take a neutral position, that we would support it because we said this is not just an issue of gambling, it's an issue of tribal sovereignty and we support tribal sovereignty,'' Smith said.

The Indian Relations Committee has 21 members, including six Penobscot members, three of whom are elders.

The Episcopal committee's vote came on the heels of, and partly in response to, the CCL's campaign to defeat the Passamaquoddy racino.

The committee's statement refers obliquely to CCL:

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''Some religious leaders have questioned the morality of gambling. Gambling is a legal activity in the State of Maine conducted by a range of businesses, nonprofit organizations, and religious institutions. Until all gambling is prohibited in any form the Committee on Indian Relations perceives moral objections raised against the Passamaquoddy as highly hypocritical and specious given the current prevalence of gambling within Maine. As a matter of fairness, the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Penobscot Nation should enjoy the same opportunity to pursue legitimate economic activities as private corporations such as Holly Slots currently enjoy.''

''Well, that's a good point, and our position is that the Hollywood Slots should be shut down and that all Class III gambling should be banned,'' CCL director Michael Heath told ICT when asked to comment on the Indian Relations Committee statement.

But according to CCL's Web site, the group appears to support the continued existence of Hollywood Slots. CCL sent out a ''voter's guide'' questionnaire to candidates in last November's election, asking if they would ''oppose laws expanding harness-racing racino gambling beyond the 1,500 slots at Bangor's Hollywood Slots'' rather than asking if they would support a bill to shut down the non-Native gaming facility.

In a posting on Oct. 11, Heath raised the fear of mob involvement in the proposed Passamaquoddy racino.

''The Indians are saying that they will be the 'majority owner.' This is causing speculation about who will own the other 49 percent of the operation. Will it be the mafia? Nobody knows, and the Indians aren't saying,'' Heath wrote.

Heath told ICT that he was unaware of federal Indian gaming oversight laws that limit outside investments to 40 percent.

When asked why he would raise the specter of Mafia involvement in the tribe's racino, Heath said, ''Well, because gambling is historically associated with such corrupt activities.''

But when asked if he knows of any Indian gaming tribes involved with the Mafia, Heath said, ''No. I can't name any right off the top of my head.''

Passamaquoddy Chief Rick Doyle and William Nicholas, governor of the tribe's Indian Township government, could not be reached for comment. The two have stated that the tribe has no investors at the moment, and are concentrating on passing the racino vote before seeking investors. The tribe has contributed $300,000 of its own money for its campaign to pass the racino vote while CCL has raised $7,310, including $6,500 of its own funds, for its efforts to defeat the racino vote, according to the Maine Ethics Commission Web site.

The Episcopal Committee on Indian Relations referred to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in support of the Passamaquoddy racino, citing indigenous peoples' rights to self-determination, freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development:

''The Passamaquoddy Tribe has determined that pursuit and development of a racino makes sense to achieve their economic development goals. Neither the State of Maine nor its citizens should hinder the Tribe from realizing their economic development goals.''