Morality Play

Posted June 15, 2010, at 7:44 p.m.

The morality argument is rarely used these days against such businesses as gambling casinos and strip clubs. Instead, when casinos and strip clubs are debated, the arguments tend to invoke economics, public safety and perhaps individual rights.

Morality as a concept may have become too relative for many people. The reality of 21st century America is that the once unifying and widely accepted Judeo-Christian moral code is neither unifying nor widely accepted. Moral objections also were once applied to alcohol use. The prohibition on alcohol, made federal law in 1920, largely was driven by churches.

With the decline of the moral argument, debates over whether a strip club in Bangor should or should not be able to serve alcohol, and whether a casino should or should not be permitted in Oxford County or elsewhere, look to state law as an arbiter. And there is inconsistency in that law.

A recent news story reported on the proliferation of strip clubs in Carrabassett Valley, one of which announces to patrons that they can touch “95 percent of the women’s bodies.” State law addresses sex acts for hire — prostitution — but does not ban strip clubs, instead leaving that decision to municipalities, where ordinances can be drafted prohibiting or allowing them.

Gambling, however, has a different history. Dennis Bailey, spokesman for CasinosNo!, said slot machines became ubiquitous in the country after the Civil War. They typically were found in saloons, he said, and soon became associated with drunkenness and prostitution, and were seen as a bad influence on family life.

In response, states began passing laws banning gambling devices. In Maine, the law that prevents private businesses from setting up slot machines in their backrooms is a descendent of that impetus. Yet the irony is that the state, through its lotteries, is itself in the gambling business. A casino in Maine would have to be approved by voters statewide.

Had strip clubs existed as Main Street businesses back in the late 19th century, Maine and other states might well have laws on the books banning them. But, unlike casinos, they aren’t banned and are only tangentially regulated by the state. The state regulates the sale of alcohol, and when strip clubs serve it, they must secure a state-issued liquor license. Licenses or renewals are denied if there is a record of fights, serving underage patrons and other problems. Other local rules often apply, such as Bangor’s no-alcohol ordinance.

The casino gambling question comes before Maine voters again in November, as a group of investors have successfully petitioned to have on the ballot a law that, if passed, would allow a casino to be built in Oxford County. Again, the moral question is not paramount in the debate; rather, questions about economic development, taxes, where the profits go and whether people will lose more than they can afford to are the concerns.

As Maine again faces a vote on a casino and towns contemplate strip clubs, the disparate ways these entities are treated under state law is worthy of further consideration.

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