Ohio’s Republican-controlled House this week passed the “Pastor Protection Act,” a bill some Churches say advances religious freedom although critics insist could lead to discrimination.
House Bill 36, the “Ohio Pastor Protection Act,” protects ministers from penalty if they refuse to perform a marriage that goes against their religious beliefs.
The bill also states that no “religious society” is required to allow such a marriage to be held on its property.
The goal is to prevent “tension” and lawsuits regarding religious entities and same-sex marriage, said bill sponsor Rep. Nino Vitale. The Urbana Republican said the bill is “not a sword, but a shield” meant to protect everyone’s beliefs.
The bill has been in the works since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationally in 2015.
Although this religious freedom for pastors is already protected in the U.S. and state constitutions, Vitale said the bill is necessary because of the current “tension” that exists between people of different belief systems.
“The state of Ohio must decide if it’s going to relieve this tension, which has been done in 20 other states and growing, or are we going to allow groups to sue each other and use the heavy hand of the court?” Vitale said.
Vitale used the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) as a reference point, saying that while religious freedom was protected constitutionally when the law was passed in 1992, the law was still needed to reinforce that freedom. He said to think of this bill as “the Ohio RFRA.”
In his arguments, Vitale referenced a florist who was sued in Washington after refusing to serve customers for a same-sex wedding. His bill, however, only mentions ministers and religious entities, not businesses.
“We have these very strong words in state constitutions, but we have this tension and these lawsuits going on,” he said.
Vitale noted a number of cities and towns in Ohio have ordinances that protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The Pastor Protection Act, he said, would clarify that refusing to perform or host a marriage is simply a matter of religious freedom.
Equality Ohio, an LGBT rights group, said it will continue to fight the bill because property and services rented to the public should be available to people regardless of race, sex, religion and other protected characteristics.
“The problem with the bill is not that clergy can choose not to marry someone if it goes against their faith. They currently have––and should have––that right,” Alana Jochum, the executive director of Equality Ohio said in a press release. “It is that the bill goes further, and allows for undefined ‘religious societies’ to discriminate against couples seeking to marry with regard to public accommodations.”
This means that couples ––including interfaith couples or even interracial couples ––could experience discrimination in accessing a Knights of Columbus hall for a wedding reception, for example, Alana said. .
The bill, which the House passed 61-29, will now head to the Senate for consideration.