LONG BEACH — Two Catholic churches and two Jewish congregations have filed suit to overturn a city ordinance that prohibits a game called "break-open bingo."
The lawsuit, filed in Long Beach Superior Court, contends that the city has prevented churches and congregations from "deriving a profit for their charitable institutions."
Superior Court Judge William H. Winston Jr. has ordered city officials to appear in court Nov. 4 and explain why the judge should not invalidate the ordinance.
Deputy City Atty. Bradford L. Andrews said he will argue against the injunction. He said the city opposes the game, which is authorized by state law, because of the possibility of local corruption.
Break-open bingo uses cards that have predetermined winners and losers, much like instant state lottery tickets. Players know immediately whether they win or lose when they break open their prepackaged cards.
'Lucrative Form' of Bingo
The suit describes the game as a "very lucrative form of bingo" that is "regularly deployed in just about all of the counties and cities in the state of California that permit the playing of bingo, with the exception of Long Beach."
Andrews agreed that the game is extremely popular in neighboring cities. He said police have told him that if city congregations were allowed to play break-open bingo, they could triple their take on weekly bingo operations. However, Andrews said the city officials believe "there's a lot of room for abuse and corruption in that style of bingo."
Sgt. Richard F. Williams of the Police Department's vice division said that no state or local agency is required to inspect the cards to determine "whether they're honest or not."
"Who's to say that some of those (cards) aren't marked in some way or that winners are put in one pile and losers in another?" Williams asked.
The suit was filed last month by John J. Gilligan, a Long Beach lawyer, on behalf of the Lubavitch Congregation, Jews for Judaism, St. Maria Goretti Church and St. Cornelius Parish. The suit, which seeks an unspecified amount of damages, names as defendants the City of Long Beach, its Police Department, City Atty. John C. Calhoun and Police Chief Charles B. Ussery.
However, Father John T. Kane, pastor of St. Maria Goretti Church, said that both his church and St. Cornelius Parish do not want to be parties to the suit.
Kane said that two church volunteers who signed a contract with lawyer Gilligan to represent both Catholic churches were not legally empowered to represent the churches. He said both churches are among 300 parishes of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which the pastor said would have to approve any lawsuit involving a local church. No such permission was granted, Kane said. He added that although he agreed with the purpose of the suit, he does not think that suing the city is "appropriate." He blamed a "lack of communication" between pastors and church volunteers who hired Gilligan.
Gilligan said he has not yet consulted with the pastors of the two Catholic churches. He said if they want to drop out of the suit he would file papers to dismiss both churches from the court action. He added, however, that both Jewish congregations are "still staunchly in favor" of going ahead with the lawsuit.
Representatives of the Lubavitch Congregation and Jews for Judaism could not be reached for comment. Gilligan said he signed a contract with Berbie Weiner to represent the two congregations. She is manager of a weekly bingo game held by both congregations, Gilligan said.
The city has prohibited break-open bingo under a 1980 bingo ordinance that bars "the use of cards having numbers or symbols which are concealed and preprinted in a manner providing for distribution of prizes."
Conflict With State Law
However, the suit charges that the local law is unconstitutional because it conflicts with a state law that allows bingo and "cards having numbers or symbols which are concealed or preprinted in a manner providing for distribution of prizes."
"There is no question plaintiffs have the right to offer the 'break open bingo' game of chance to the public for purposes of deriving a profit for their charitable institutions but they are being illegally and unlawfully restrained from doing so due to the defendants' enforcement of the unconstitutional ordinance," the suit states.
Andrews replied that state law "very specifically authorizes some degree of local control and supervision over bingo games."