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Religious leaders join forces against Toronto casino proposal

Faith Leaders gather at City Hall on Thursday to release an interfaith statement opposing casino expansion within the GTA.

Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

Talk of a new casino in Toronto is moving from the political arena to the pulpit, with a coalition of faith leaders urging city council to reject plans to expand gambling.

Religious officials, including an Anglican bishop, Jesuit priest, imam, guru, rabbi and two former moderators of the United Church of Canada, stood together in the main foyer of Toronto City Hall Thursday to register their opposition to a proposed casino and to talk about their firsthand experience with the fallout from problem gambling.

"We are standing here representing 250 faith leaders from synagogues, churches, mosques, temples, all across the Greater Toronto Area," said Rev. Christopher White, who helped organize the event. "This is the first time that you have seen this amount of commitment, co-operation on an issue that concerns all of us."

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Toronto's city manager is expected to release a report on the pros and cons of a new casino any day. The proposal for a downtown casino and the expansion of the existing one at Woodbine Racetrack will likely go to a special meeting of Mayor Rob Ford's executive later this month and to city council in May.

Several religious leaders said Thursday that they are talking to their communities about their opposition to the Ontario government's plans to expand gambling across the province, urging them to contact local politicians.

"I would say this message today is getting out to all levels of government," Mr. White said.

Mr. Ford, when told of the faith leaders' stand, said he believes Torontonians support a gaming facility. "The majority of people want a casino. It creates 10,000 good-paying jobs. I do what the majority of people want me to do."

The mayor said he knows Toronto residents support a casino because: "It's what I hear from people."

When asked if the casino could still get the go-ahead from council, the mayor said he believes it will be successful.

Councillors are expecting the faith leaders' position to affect what they hear in their wards. Scarborough Councillor Michelle Berardinetti said she is still consulting constituents on the casino question, predicting the opposition of religious leaders likely will influence residents. "These are leaders within our community and most people follow a faith," she said.

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Ms. Berardinetti said their opposition likely will not decide the casino question but predicted it will play a role, like other groups who are for or against it.

"Councillors should be listening to all of them," she said.

Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl, speaking on behalf of the Toronto Board of Rabbis, described Thursday's news conference as precedent-setting and predicted faith leaders will continue to join together on important issues.

"This is the first, largest interfaith gathering representing such a diverse community certainly in Toronto, I believe in Ontario, perhaps in Canada, and we'll continue to speak up," he said.

Religious leaders, Dr. Frydman-Kohl said, are tired of being "the wallpaper," or backdrop for politicians making announcements. "We are beginning to speak up," he said.

Sheik Habeeb Alli, at city hall to represent the Canadian Council of Imams in the Toronto region, said his group does not plan to endorse particular candidates, but will talk to followers and allow them to draw their own conclusions.

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"We do not have any kind of power to kill anybody's plans, but what we do have as democratic citizens of this country, we have the ability and we have the history of engaging with authorities and persons involved to say … this is our concern."

With a report from Sunny Dhillon

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