Is Playing Bingo Against the Law in the State of Tennessee?

By Jane Meggitt
Bingo is illegal in Tennessee.

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You can't yell "Bingo" in Tennessee. Well, you can yell it, but not in an actual gaming hall playing an actual game. The Tennessee legislature prohibits most forms of gambling, so playing a bingo game or operating a bingo event could land you in the slammer and cost you fines.

Bingo Definition

The Tennessee Charitable Gaming Implementation Law defines bingo as a "specific game of chance in which participants use cards or paper sheets divided into horizontal and vertical spaces, each of which is designated by a letter and a number, and prizes are awarded on the basis of the letters and numbers on the card conforming to a predetermined and pre-announced configuration of letters and numbers selected at random."

Penalties

Anyone caught operating or playing a game of bingo faces criminal charges from a Class C misdemeanor to a Class E felony. The former carries a minimum 30-day jail sentence or a fine of up to $250, or both, while the latter carries a prison term from four to six years. It doesn't matter if the bingo sponsor is a religious institution or charitable organization -- it's still illegal.

Legal History

Bingo does have a legal history in the Volunteer State. According to Vanderbilt University, charities in the 1970s lobbied the legislature to enact statutes exempting bingo from state gambling laws. The state constitution, adopted in 1835, specifically prohibits lotteries, but bingo wasn't around in antebellum America. Legislators rationalized that bingo wasn't a lottery, which is prohibited, but gambling, which the state can regulate. In the 1980s, the secretary of state filed suit in Davidson County, challenging bingo games held in churches statewide. Adding to bingo woes were allegations that gambling professionals used charitable bingo games as fronts, with the bulk of the monies not going to charity. In 1989, the legislature repealed statutes permitting charitable bingo.

Permitted Fundraising

While a 501(c)3 organization can't run a bingo night in Tennessee, that doesn't mean all bets are off. Tennessee law does permit charitable organizations to run an annual event featuring a raffle or cakewalks. In the latter game, the prize literally consists of pastry. Charities with proof of Internal Revenue Service tax-exemption and continuous operation in the state for at least five years may apply and pay a non-refundable fee based on the estimated gross of the event. The charity must submit a financial report to the state within 90 days after the event.

About the Author

A graduate of New York University, Jane Meggitt writes regularly for various legal blogs. Her work has appeared in LegalZoom, USA Today and many other publications.

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