Sweepstakes businesses can stay open past the Dec. 1 deadline for closing imposed by state law, but the games will have to change so that they no longer include poker, keno or anything that resembles a slot machine.

Judge John Craig III of Guilford Superior Court in High Point ruled this week that video-game sweepstakes are protected free speech by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. But, Craig ruled, the state of North Carolina has the right to limit games that mimic gambling.

“What they were trying to do is get rid of all of these games that look like casino games, and from that standpoint, they’ve done it,” said Davis North, an attorney who represents a company that makes sweepstakes games. “The intent, obviously, is not to allow places to stay open that use gambling games, which is all of them.”

North represents Hest Technologies, one of two companies that appealed a state law passed this summer banning sweepstakes games. The other company involved in the lawsuit was Internet International Technologies.

Legislators argued this summer that the sweepstakes games are a form of gambling and are similar to video poker, which the state banned in 2006. The state’s ban on sweepstakes games was to have taken effect on Dec. 1.

Now, business owners who offer sweepstakes games will have to decide whether to shut their doors or buy new games that do not resemble casino games. The city of Winston-Salem estimated in June that about 50 businesses offer sweepstakes games through the city.

David Hagie, who owns 12 sweepstakes businesses around Forsyth County and about 90 throughout North Carolina, said that his businesses would stay open.

“We will be changing our games to comply with the law,” Hagie said.

“We possibly could be without the sweepstakes games for a couple of days while we get the new software system ready, but we definitely are going to change our games to comply with Judge Craig’s ruling,” he said.

Frank Myers, who owns seven businesses that offer sweepstakes gaming in Winston-Salem, said yesterday that the sweepstakes games are only one part of his business.

“We are a legitimate business,” Myers said. “We do fax, copy, we sell Internet time. I mean, some of our stores are making good money doing fax and copy.”

North said he is not sure if the companies will appeal Craig’s ruling.

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