A Pastor Protection Act that supporters say protects religious freedom — but critics call unnecessary and discriminatory against gay couples — passed the Ohio House on Wednesday.
The bill says that no licensed minister or religious society can be forced to perform or host a marriage ceremony that does not conform to their sincerely held religious beliefs while protecting them from lawsuits.
Rep. Nino Vitale, R-Urbana, said House Bill 36 is aimed at addressing the tension between the U.S. Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision and the catechism of faith communities.
"Do we want Ohio to be a state that imposes something on pastors that is against their deeply held religious beliefs?" he said.
"This is not a sword. This bill is intended to be a shield to protect everyone's rights," he said. "Are we going to allow groups to sue each other and use the heavy hand of the courts?"
Clergy already have constitutional protections and can choose to not marry someone if it doesn’t conform with their faith, said Alana Jochum, executive director of Equality Ohio, a LGBT advocacy group. The problem with the bill, she said, is it goes further by including "religious societies," meaning, for example, a couple could be blocked from accessing a Knights of Columbus hall for a wedding reception.
The bill passed 59-29 over objections from most Democrats.
Pastors should have the right to not perform a marriage based on religious beliefs, but organizations that rent to the public should not be allowed to deny access to the LGBT community, said Rep. Janine Boyd, D-Cleveland Heights.
"Do not legalize turning more people away," she said shortly before the vote.
Dozens of pastors, many from Baptist churches, had given testimony in favor of the bill. However, according to accounts by Gongwer News Service, none offered a first-person experience of being sued for failing to perform a gay marriage, though they said the bill eases concern about future lawsuits.
"Our congregation and I hold to the Biblical view that for a marriage to be recognized by God, it must be a union between one man and one woman," said Senior Pastor Daniel Wolvin of the North Columbus Baptist Church and state director of Awake America Ohio. "This is not our only position on marriage, but certainly a foundation of what constitutes a scriptural marriage union."
The Catholic Conference of Ohio also supports the bill.
A number of church leaders also oppose the measure, including the Rev. Dwight Davidson of the United Church of Granville, arguing it "protects no one" because faith leaders already cannot be forced by the state to perform a marriage.
"In my view, this bill is little more than a piece of public pouting, brought forth by people who disagree with the legality of same-gender marriage," Davidson said. "It is a piece of legislative rhetoric intended to bully and to intimidate."
Davidson called the notion that pastors are suffering persecution or bullying "farcical," saying the bill is being used to "amplify an exaggerated narrative that America’s Christian culture is somehow under attack."
"This is a perfect example of a persecution complex," he said.
Rep. Mike Duffey of Worthington was among a few Republicans to vote against the bill.
"Our religious freedom is already fully protected in every way proposed, so let’s not send a signal to our talented LGBT Ohioans that they are unwelcome," he wrote in a tweet. "Ohio is open for business."
House Bill 36 now goes to the Senate. Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, didn't say the bill was a priority, but said it likely would not have trouble passing his chamber.