COLUMBIA— A bill that would allow retirees to legally play bridge passed the Senate unanimously on Tuesday, two weeks after a senator threatened to challenge South Carolina’s centuries-old antigambling laws in court.
Under Sen. Tom Davis’ bill, members of social clubs or groups could gather at someone’s home or community clubhouse to play games with cards, dice or tiles. It names bridge, canasta and mahjong as specific examples. Electronic devices and betting on the games would still be banned. The bill requires another perfunctory vote to head to the House.
It represents legislators’ latest attempt to change the state’s 1802 antigambling laws that, if read literally, ban any game with cards or dice. Previous efforts over the last decade have been blocked over concerns about the re-emergence of video poker or other gambling that might be legalized through any change to the law.
But Davis, R-Beaufort, said his bill was aimed solely at allowing people to socially gather and play games, not gamble. And he warned his colleagues that if anyone blocked his effort, he’d sue to have the outdated law thrown out altogether, allowing for gambling in all forms.
Davis said after meeting with gambling foes, they realized his bill offered the better option than a lawsuit that could bring “the things they truly fear.”
Oran Smith of the Palmetto Family Council said he’s comfortable the amended bill won’t usher in any unintended consequences. It’s much more limited than previous legislation that attempted to allow kitchen-table poker, he said.
“There’s language in there that locks down all the hatches pretty tightly, so it’s purely about people being allowed to play social games,” Smith said.
Davis said he proposed the bill after state police warned a manager at Sun City Hilton Head last May that the bridge and canasta social clubs it advertised for residents violated state law. That prompted management of the 14,000-resident retiree community to remove all signs and tell the clubs they could no longer play in community game rooms.
A spokesman for the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division said agents with its alcohol enforcement unit stopped at Sun City because several buildings inside the community are licensed to sell alcohol. Asked about poker, an agent explained that any gambling would endanger the facility’s liquor license, Thom Berry said.
Davis said he heard from outraged members of several hundred clubs. He has pointed to a November 2012 ruling from the state Supreme Court to back up his threat.
The state’s high court ruled a lower court erred in throwing out the convictions from a 2006 raid on a poker game in Mount Pleasant. The justices found the players couldn’t challenge the law because their game was “not your penny ante game of poker” but rather an organized card game whose players were recruited over the Internet.
However, Chief Justice Jean Toal wrote in her opinion that the law is “hopelessly outdated, as it applies to any gaming activity (including all card games) played in a residential home whether wagering occurs or not. This section expired in usefulness long ago.” She went on to “charge the Legislature to modernize” the law.