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Pastor Protection Act ready to move

By MARC KOVACCapital Bureau Published: March 4, 2017 5:00 AM

COLUMBUS -- Legislation that would codify protections for pastors who refuse to perform same-sex marriages is being positioned for potential passage in the Ohio House.

HB 36, titled the Pastor Protection Act, was slated for a second hearing before the House's Community and Family Advancement Committee Wednesday, a week after that panel played host to sponsor and proponent testimony.

The bill would protect pastors and churches from lawsuits and prosecution for refusing to officiate or play host same-sex marriage ceremonies.

"Many Ohio faith leaders and parishioners see rapid cultural and legal changes that point to looming threats to the free exercise of religion, despite First Amendment protections," state Rep. Nino Vitale (R-Urbana) said in submitted testimony last week. "I think the turnout of almost 40 pastors who came to testify on this bill in the last general assembly show they see a real threat. This new bill just makes it clear, in this time of uncertainty, that Ohio clergy and Ohio church property remain protected from these types of legal challenges."

About a dozen churches and groups also offered proponent testimony on the bill last week.

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The ACLU of Ohio and other groups, however, say the legislation is unnecessary and could increase discrimination in the state. More than a dozen churches and other groups submitted opponent testimony on the bill Wednesday.

The list included Rep. Nickie Antonio (D-Lakewood), an openly gay member of the state legislature.

"This bill would reiterate religious freedom protections that I and many others believe are already guaranteed to Ohioans under the U.S. Constitution with the First Amendment and Article I of the Ohio Constitution," she wrote in her submitted testimony. "My fear, at the very least, is that this bill could create confusion with its lack of definitions, clarity and intent with regard to 'religious institutions.' And at the most, it sets up a hostile and offensive premise to me and my family and many members of Ohio's LGBT community."

Asked by Statehouse reporters about the legislation Wednesday afternoon, House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger (R-Clarksville) said there is support for passage among majority Republicans in the chamber.

"We will have another discussion Tuesday about it and we'll see where we go with it," he said. "But I think we have a lot of people in caucus interested in (seeing) something happening with this This is really, as far as the bill goes, really narrow down in scope to focus solely on this issue on marriage at these churches."

He added, "The state constitution already provides for a lot of these protections, and I think what we would be doing is passing a bill that reaffirms that in many cases Those protections already exist, and we have a lot of members that want to see that potentially reaffirmed, and I'm listening to those members, and this is what this bill would produce."

Marc Kovac covers the Ohio Statehouse for GateHouse Media. Contact him at mkovac@recordpub.com or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.


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