COLUMBUS – Pastors who decline to perform same-sex marriages would be protected from lawsuits if a bill known as the Ohio Pastor Protection Act becomes law.
The bill would clarify that a licensed minister or religious society is not required to solemnize a marriage that does not conform to their religious beliefs.
Rep. Nino Vitale, R-Urbana, said the bill is not a form of discrimination against a certain group but a way to protect religious leaders and church property from being “forced to do something that is against their religious beliefs.”
“I personally believe all men are created equal and do not believe in creating laws or carve outs in laws that favor one group over another for any reason,” Vitale said. “People of good will must find a way to live in harmony or we will tear the very fabric of our society apart.”
Under the bill, a church or religious society could also deny renting its property to gay couples for events such as weddings.
In 2015, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a version of Pastor Protection Act into law. Other states, such as Tennessee, Florida, Oklahoma and Alabama, also have similar bills going through the state’s legislative process, Vitale said.
In Georgia, lawmakers passed the “Pastor Protection Act” out of the House floor on Thursday. The vote was 161-0.
The bill is unnecessary because a religious leader’s right to refuse to perform same-sex marriages is already protected by the First Amendment, said Monette Richards, president of Center for Inquiry-Northeast Ohio.
“(The bill) is privileging religion and actually codifying bigotry,” Richards said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio agrees with Richards; its website says the bill is a redundant piece of legislation.
The organization also finds the term “religious society” troubling, as it remains undefined in the legislation and could have a broad meaning.
“Ohio’s legislators should be working on providing protections to their LGBT constituents who can be fired from their jobs, kicked out of their homes, and denied public services instead of focusing on further discrimination,” according to the ACLU of Ohio website.
About 20 people spoke in favor of the bill during a committee hearing on Tuesday. The proponents, consisting of church leaders and pastors, argued the bill was necessary to guarantee religious freedom and to clear up the confusion that resulted from last year’s Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriages.
Ernie Sanders, a pastor of Doers of the Word Baptist Church, said he would never “succumb to the illegitimate dictates of a rogue court that legislates from the bench.”
“God’s Word, the Bible, clearly teaches that resistance to tyranny is obedience to God and failure to resist is disobedience to God,” Sanders said.
Eric Cuenin, a pastor at Berean Baptist Church of Pickerington, said religious freedom is also a concern of churchgoers, not just pastors.
“We must show ourselves to be gracious toward those people of faith and those who value the Almighty,” Cuenin said.
But Richards said bills such as the Pastor Protection Act bring problems to Christians as well.
“Who’s view of Christianity are they going to end up enforcing?” Richards said.
The bill, HB 286, has received support from 25 state representatives.
Joshua Lim is a fellow in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism Statehouse News Bureau. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @JoshuaLim93.