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Ohio House Approves Bill Allowing Wedding Venues To Turn Away Gay Couples

A bill which would allow people of faith to refuse to participate in same-sex weddings passed the Ohio House of Representatives on Wednesday.

House Bill 36, also known as the “Pastor Protection Act,” would prevent the state from taking action against any minister who declines to officiate an LGBTQ couple’s wedding because of their “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Sponsored by Rep. Nino Vitale, the legislation applies to judges in county and municipal courts, as well as members of “religious societies.”

Vitale, a Republican representing Urbana, has been pushing the bill since 2015, when the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges ruling legalized marriage equality. He  claimed HB 36 is not a “sword” but “a shield to protect everyone’s rights.”

“Do we want Ohio to be a state that imposes something on pastors that is against their deeply held religious beliefs?” he asked colleagues during debate.

“This bill is not only timely,” Vitale added, “it’s much needed.”

Supporters of the legislation, which includes the Catholic Conference of Ohio, agree that HB 36 is necessary to prevent the so-called “religious liberty” of faith-based entities from being violated by LGBTQ people.

In a letter to the Ohio House, local pastor Brian D. Kershaw claimed the legislation would “explicitly protect the convictional voices of pastors.” He added that the same-sex marriage issue posed “a very real threat [to conservatives] which has become imminent upon the free expression of religious conviction.”

None of the religious leaders who backed the bill, however, had been forced to officiate an LGBTQ wedding. As opponents pointed out, ministers already have the ability to refuse to solemnize same-sex unions under current law.

Critics warned that the passage of HB 36 would amount to a license to discriminate against same-sex couples.

“Proprietors of property and services that rent to the public-at-large can turn away members of the LGBTQ community,” said Cleveland Heights Democrat Janine Boyd, who pointed out that the phrase “religious societies” is undefined in the bill.

“There is no feeling at all like being turned away for what you are, for who your Creator made you to be,” she added.

The potentially sweeping implications of HB 36 are what makes LGBTQ groups so vehemently opposed to the legislation. Advocates pointed out that HB 36 would permit a Knights of Columbus hall or other wedding venues to turn away an interfaith or interracial couple if they cite religious reasons for doing so.

“Property and services rented to the public at large must be available to all, regardless of race, sex, religion and other protected characteristics,” said Equality Ohio Executive Director Alana Jochum in a statement.

Jochum called it an “RFRA for your wedding day,” referencing an Indiana bill signed into law by former Gov. Mike Pence which allowed businesses to refuse service to LGBTQ customers. That legislation was “fixed” in 2015 following a national boycott of the state which resulted in $60 million in lost revenue, as well 12 conventions pulling out of the state in protest of the anti-LGBTQ law.

Equality Ohio noted in a press release that Vitale called HB 36 “an Ohio RFRA” on the floor of the House.

Even despite the concerns of Democratic members of the House and local LGBTQ advocacy groups, Vitale’s bill passed on Wednesday by a 59-to-29 vote, which included a provision by Republican House Rep. Bill Seitz granting HB 36 the right to supersede local public accommodations laws.

The legislation passed the House Community and Family Advancement Committee on Tuesday by an 8 to 4 vote after being sidelined since February.

HB 36 will now head to the Ohio Senate, where Republicans hold a wide majority. Twenty-four of the 33 seats are held by conservatives. Should Gov. John Kasich (who is also a Republican) choose to veto the bill, supporters would need a three-fifths majority in both houses of the Ohio Legislature to override it.

That outcome is likely given HB 36’s wide support in the House, where it passed with two-thirds of the chamber’s approval.

HB 36 is just the most recent anti-LGBTQ bill to advance in Ohio in recent weeks. Last week the Community and Family Advancement committee heard debate on House Bill 658, a proposal which would grant parents greater authority to block trans children from transitioning and force teachers to out transgender students to their families.

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