Brazil: How does religion influence gambling regulation?

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In Latin America (LatAm), somewhat surprisingly, no country has an official state religion. However, many associate Christian denominations with the region, finding LatAm in general synonymous with faith.

“The Latin American people are, for the most part, Christian,” says Magnho José, editor of BNLData and president of the Instituto Brasileiro Jogo Legal. “In most countries, this figure exceeds 80%, including Catholics and evangelicals.”

And according to both José and Hugo Baungartner, vice-president of global markets at Aposta Ganha, religion is having an increasing impact on politics in the region.

“Currently, the strength of religion on the continent and the advancement of a religious influence in institutional politics is notorious and more and more religious people, whether progressive or reactionary, have come together to propagate their projects in the public sphere,” José explains.

Baungartner adds, “[Religious] influence has been growing year by year with the increase of different religion types. Nowadays they even have their own politicians, including forming groups to execute their power and influence.”

Influence on Brazil’s legislative outcomes

Few LatAm countries have seen religious influence on their gambling policy like Brazil, despite being a religiously free country, which even boasts a national day devoted to the principle – 7 January.

According to the Global Religion 2023 study – carried out across 26 countries – Brazil has the highest percentage of citizens who believe in God or a higher power, at 89%. Predictably, this has bled into the country’s political regime.

“Over the last 82 years, several topics have caused controversy in Brazil and among them is the legalisation of gambling,” explains José. “Those who do not live in Brazil will have difficulty understanding the lack of objectivity and common sense of Brazilian politicians when it comes to gambling. Religious issues end up contaminating and distorting the debate.”

Brazil has been rocked by the evangelical movement over the last few years, with around a third of its population identifying as evangelical in 2022. It is no surprise, then, that evangelical lawmakers greatly opposed Bill 3,626/2023, the long-awaited law to regulate sports betting and igaming, almost stopping its progress completely.

“The most important country that faced [religious opposition] was, and will be, Brazil,” says Felipe Fraga, an expert on Latin America.

“The reason is that when we look over the most populated countries, no one has more than 20% of an evangelical population. Also, the movement of neo-pentecostalism is very powerful in Brazil and the political connections they have are very strong.”

Unintended effect of the black market

As with any regulating market, concerns remain over the presence of black and grey markets in Brazil. For Baungartner, the religious-centred aspect of the evangelical argument might do more harm than good in this respect.

“They say that [gambling] is against their faith and their God which, also, is against it,” he explains. “They use it to influence other politicians.

“Literally, for them it is devil’s business. They don’t understand that the world changed and it is better to have it regulated, instead having the grey market.”

Fraga – an evangelical himself – agrees, proposing that regulation will safeguard Brazilian citizens.

“They claim about a social point of view, looking to risks of addiction and how it can affect society, also arguing about money laundering and match-fixing,” he explains. “They say that the bill will allow or facilitate bad behaviour and criminal acts, which is completely wrong, since the idea of regulation guarantees for the country itself taxation and societal safety.

“It is exactly what the industry is looking for: fair rules for keep offering modern ways of entertainment.”

Right at the forefront of evangelicalism’s strongly-held beliefs about gambling is family values, according to José. He notes that at the recent National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB), gambling was slated as bringing “irreparable moral, social and, particularly, family damage”.

The following was heard at the event: “A vote in favour of gambling will, in practice, be a vote of contempt for life, for family and its fundamental values.”

But the dispute goes beyond a moral perspective. Evangelicals and other religious politicians also point to legitimate industry concerns, such as money laundering and tax evasion – which regulation would naturally address.

A long winding road to regulation

Religion’s influence on gambling law in Brazil stretches back much further than the last few years. Gambling was banned in the country in 1946 due to religious influence and bingo was legalised between 1994 and 2005 before being prohibited once again.

This is why the passage of Bill 3,626/2023 received such a positive reception when it passed in December – it was a long time coming.

Brazil is currently in the process of regulating its igaming and sports betting market. The country’s ministry of finance, in conjunction with the newly established regulator – the Regulatory Policy of the prizes and betting secretariat – is continually publishing rules for the market, which include prohibiting credit card and cryptocurrency payments.

Could Brazil backtrack on gambling regulation?

But to those rejoicing in the market regulating, José warns them not to get comfortable.

“There is a great risk of backsliding,” he states. “I don’t believe it will get to the point of repealing gambling laws, but the religious will hinder expansion and try to stifle existing gambling operations.

“The ecumenical opposition that criticises the possibility of legalising gambling should reflect that the positive benefits of legal gambling far outweigh the disadvantages proposed by any person or group against gambling.”

Baungartner is insistent that, at the end of the day, gambling is a business and its acceptance in other countries neutralises its standing saying: “The mentality has changed over the years.”

So outright revocation might not be on the cards – not yet, at least. As long as the industry plays ball, says Fraga, it should be a smooth road ahead for Brazil’s regulating market.

“As much the industry grows in Latin America and shows that it is an important part of society – generating jobs, moving economics, entertaining, controlling addiction, etc – there will be no reason to revoke the laws,” he says.

“Even though we can consider the risks, there will be nothing happening soon.”

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