Kentucky Sports Betting Faces Uphill Battle Against Religious And Anti-Gambling Rhetoric

Posted on February 18, 2021

Last week’s historical horse racing debate showed the difficult path for Kentucky sports betting legalization.

Despite knowing the bill had the votes to pass on the House floor, conservative Republicans in the state spoke on their opposition of gambling expansion for more than two hours.

The House passed the HHR bill by a 55-38 vote, sending it to the governor’s desk for a signature.

Rep. Adam Koenig led the bill across the finish line. Koenig also sponsors H 241 to legalize sports betting and online poker.

But comments tying gambling to prostitution, comparing it to drug dealing, and the ruin of families put into perspective the uphill battle he faces for Kentucky sports betting.

Religious Republicans comprise much of Kentucky legislature

Koenig thought his sports betting bill stood a good chance of passing last year. But after he moved it through committee, the Family Foundation of Kentucky began contacting his colleagues lobbying against it.

Republican members pulled their support. Although he thought the bill had the votes to pass, the Republican caucus wouldn’t call it for a vote. Koenig himself is a Republican and a Catholic.

Rep. Chris Fugate probably explained best what Koenig has long warned.

“You know, there’s 75 of us in the majority party. And the 75 of us, we ran mostly on conservative values. What does conservative mean? A person who stands for traditional values. And most of us sent pictures out on our flyer when we ran for office of babies, because we’re pro life, flyers with guns because we’re pro second amendment, pictures of our families because we’re pro family. There’s a lot of families in America that’s been torn apart because of gambling.”

A number of lawmakers described how they made a commitment not to support legislation to expand gambling like it’s part of the oath to take office in Kentucky.

“When I first ran for office and since then, I made a commitment, I gave my word, that I would not support any legislation to expand gambling,” Rep. Danny Bentley said. “I’m going to honor my word today.”

The ole food-off-child’s-plate argument

Rep. David Hale was still recovering from the effects of COVID-19 when the HHR bill came to the House floor.

He explained that he had somebody drive him to Frankfort through an ice storm to speak against gambling because it’s what his people and his God sent him here to do.

He said the state’s gambling industry is taking money out of people’s pockets for rent, house payments, car payments, insurance, medical coverage, their children’s food, and school supplies.

“Because they do not care. Greed.”

It’s safe to say that Koenig shouldn’t expect Hale’s vote on a sports betting bill.

“I will never vote for a piece of legislation that expands that beyond what it is now. We can use a fancy term called expanded gaming. It’s expanded gambling that is destroying people’s lives.”

Hyperbolic rhetoric runs wild when it comes to KY gambling

Rep. Josh Calloway brought up the age-old question of the chicken and the egg. He wasn’t using the analogy to ask what came first, man or God.

Instead, he asserted that gambling ushered in legalized prostitution in Las Vegas. It can’t be argued that prostitution isn’t commonplace in Las Vegas, but it isn’t actually legal.

He added that gambling teaches children that they can get something for nothing, and therefore that work ethic isn’t important. And that if Kentucky lawmakers and the gambling industry put the same effort into eliminating meth, the state would be better off.

“I’m going to be a no vote on this bill to represent first of all God, second of all the word of God in my district, my principles and values, and I urge everyone else to vote no as well.”

Clergy members well represented in KY legislature

A number of Kentucky lawmakers actively work in the clergy, where they hear the occasional story of a problem gambler that sticks with them.

“I’ve seen the destruction of what drugs does and what gambling does,” said Rep. Bill Wesley, a pastor and chaplain. “I have people close to me who have lost houses and homes, and they have lost businesses due to gambling.”

He interpreted the Supreme Court ruling as declaring that HHR was illegal gambling that racetracks now were asking the legislature to deem legal. He compared it to a drug dealer, dealing pounds of marijuana instead of hay, being caught and asking the legislature to rule in favor of their illegal activity.

Rep. Ryan Dotson said that pastors such as himself see the underbelly of society that others don’t.

“I have to deal with the part of society where people are needing food at 10 o’clock at night because mom or dad has spent all the money playing bingo, lottery, what else have you. So to that point my stance on this vote is simply a no, not because I think I’m so much better in the aspect of my moral standing. But my no vote is to protect Kentucky. There are better ways to get jobs.”

Kentucky sports betting lacks HHR advantage

With all of this anti-gambling rhetoric, the historical horse racing bill narrowly passed. So why can’t sports betting pass too?

Koenig previously expressed optimism that the HHR bill could lead the way for Kentucky sports betting. If members voted against the Kentucky Family Foundation once, maybe they would do so again.

However, the HHR bill had support that sports betting can’t replicate. Horse racing is one of Kentucky’s premier industries, perhaps the one for which it is best known.

Koenig argued that tens of thousands of existing jobs were at stake, and those employed in the industry made their voices heard.

Rep. Ken Fleming stated that he puts God first, runs a mental health center, and also sees people dealing with problem gambling issues. However, he sees more people suffering from a lack of employment. He said he’s heard from around 200 constituents on the bill, all but a handful in favor of its passage.

“The vast majority of these people want to have this because 80-to-90 of those emails come from families who will lose their jobs. That I cannot face.”

Legal sports betting will bring jobs to Kentucky. But it doesn’t have the constituents with existing jobs in a variety of areas to convince enough of the ultra-religious lawmakers to support a gambling expansion. Kentucky’s legislative session runs until March 30.

Photo by AP / James Crisp
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Matthew Kredell

Matthew has covered efforts to legalize and regulate online gambling since 2007. His reporting on the legalization of sports betting began in 2010 with an article for Playboy Magazine on how the NFL was pushing US money overseas by fighting the expansion of regulated sports betting. A USC journalism alum, Matt started his career as a sportswriter at the Los Angeles Daily News and has written on a variety of topics for Playboy, Men’s Journal, Los Angeles magazine, LA Weekly and

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