Conservatives push religious freedom bill in Ohio

Urbana lawmaker says bill protects pastors, churches from being sued.

“What it does is it simply protect pastors and church property from being sued if they wish not to perform a wedding ceremony against their religious beliefs,” said state Rep. Nino Vitale, R-Urbana, the chief sponsor of the measure. “The key to this legislation is really aimed at heading off litigation. That’s what this is about. It’s about creating peace and respect for each other in Ohio. We are not trying to create a new right or deny anyone’s right.”

Vitale, who acknowledged that no Ohio religious institution has been sued for its refusal to perform gay weddings, said legislative leaders have not advanced the bill, even though there are enough votes in the 99-member Ohio House to pass it. He noted there are 25 co-sponsors on the bill.

Lisa Wurm of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio said the bill is unnecessary and redundant since the First Amendment already protects religious freedom.

“All it does is drive a wedge in our state similar to what we see in Indiana and North Carolina,” Wurm said. “And LGBT people need protecting, not pastors.”

In April 2015, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that sparked protests and questions about what it would accomplish. And North Carolina just passed a law that requires people to use public restrooms that correspond with the sex listed on their birth certificates — a measure aimed at transgendered individuals.

Paula Westwood, the executive director of the Right to Life of Greater Cincinnati, believes that churches and religious organizations should not be in hot water if they refuse to officiate a same-sex marriage.

“It is the best of American values to not discriminate against people or institutions’ deeply held convictions,” Westwood said. “Those who believe marriage is a man-woman union deserve the same respect those who do not are demanding. It is a sad commentary on our culture, which supposedly prides itself on diversity, that legislation is required to protect churches and individuals from speaking and acting according to their beliefs.”

Dr. Jason K. Lee, dean of the School of Biblical and Theological Studies at Cedarville University, agrees with Westwood and said that churches should be protected from legal action for refusing to marry a same-sex couple.

“Yes, in many cases, the churches are not performing the ceremony, but simply the minister is serving as the wedding official in conjunction with the denomination’s ordination or certification serving as the minister’s credentials,” Lee said. He noted that there here is a distinction between the public, religious ceremony that celebrates the marriage union and the requirements of the state for a legal marriage union.

Not sure law needs to be changed

John-Charles Duffy, a religious expert at Miami University, said while it’s understandable that same-sex marriage dissenters would feel insecure in the suddenly transformed legal climate, it’s not clear that what HB 286 is setting out to do actually needs to be done.

“It’s inconceivable that the courts would compel a religious institution or officiant to perform a marriage that was incompatible with the institution’s norms or with the officiant’s conscience. That right of dissent is already well protected by legal precedent,” Duffy said. “The possibility of a church being sued for not allowing a same-sex marriage to be performed on their property is a little more conceivable, but not by much, but it’s hard to imagine that the courts wouldn’t allow a big zone of accommodation for religious freedom, even if such accommodations weren’t explicitly written into the law.”

Duffy said he is inclined to read HB 286 as an overreaction by same-sex marriage dissenters. “Whether this bill passes or fails will make little, if any, legal difference - although I imagine same-sex marriage dissenters will feel safer if it passes.”

The Rev. Aaron Maurice Saari, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Yellow Springs, said HB 286 is a solution in search of a problem. He believes that the idea that any church would be sued for refusing to solemnize a marriage is ridiculous.

“Pastors already have the right to refuse marriage to those who won’t undergo pre-marital counseling, or to deny couples because the pastor does not believe they are ready to be married,” Saari explained. I am a pastor ordained by the United Church of Christ serving a Presbyterian Church, both denominations that allow for solemnizing of same-gender marriages, but never is there a requirement that a pastor do so. Again, it is ridiculous to push this legislation forward because it simply inflames the notion that Christians are under attack. We are not. No community or pastor will be required to do anything that violates their conscience.”

Father Bill Kramer, pastor at St. Raphael’s Catholic Church in Springfield, said from the Catholic perspective, having a law that protects churches from legal action for refusing to marry a same sex couple is not necessary.

“We are ministers of the Catholic Church and our church does not allow us to marry same sex couples. We do not celebrate weddings of same sex couples because it is contrary to our faith,” he explained. “In the Catholic Church all churches follow the same teachings. Maybe the proposed legislation would be helpful to some churches but as far as the Catholic Church is concerned - it is a waste of legislation time.”

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