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Could Ohio Find Common Ground Between Pastor Protection and LGBT Rights?

Proponents of two stalled, opposed pieces of legislation in Ohio — one that would protect a pastor’s right to refuse to perform a gay marriage, the other intended to protect LGBT people from housing and job discrimination – might find common ground.

“What’s that old cliche about politics – the art of the possible?” wrote Marc Kovac, who covers the Ohio Statehouse for Gatehouse Media.

Republican members of the Ohio Government Accountability and Oversight Committee didn’t show much interest in a proposal to protect LGBT rights. They failed to ask a single question during the initial committee hearing in June for HB 160, the Ohio Fairness Act.

Meanwhile, HB 36, the Pastor Protection Act, hasn’t gotten further than the House Community and Family Advancement Committee since February.

The Pastor Protection Act, sponsored by Republican Rep. Nino Vitale, would “permit a religious entity to refuse to solemnize a marriage.” In other words, pastors, ministers, rabbis and priests would be allowed to refuse to perform gay weddings and “religious societies” would be authorized to refuse to hold gay weddings in their facilities.

State Rep. Nickie Antonio, a Democrat and openly gay member of the Ohio House, has reintroduced legislation to protect gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people from losing their homes or jobs just because they aren’t straight.

“All Ohioans, including LGBT women and men, deserve an equal opportunity to pursue a career, enjoy safe housing and be a contributing member of society,” said Antonio.

She’s hoping the seventh time will be the charm. The GOP-dominated Ohio General Assembly has rejected similar legislation during six other sessions.

“I believe it is past time for Ohio to embrace true equality for all citizens,” Antonio said.

Ohio is one of 28 states that have not added sexual orientation and gender identity to anti-discrimination laws. Twenty other states have, and Antonio said those 20 states have an advantage when it comes to recruiting young, college-educated people.

Take for instance her two children, a couple of thirtysomethings who have moved out of state for more progressive locales.

“It breaks my heart that my children would not consider right now raising their children in Ohio because they don’t see Ohio as a place that would embrace them,” Antonio said. “I think it’s time for Ohio to change rather than have people leave the state.”

A 2013 Public Religion Research Institute poll showed 68 percent of Ohioans would favor a law like Antonio is proposing. But at the same time, an overwhelming majority — 84 percent — believed it was already illegal to discriminate against anyone based on their gender or sexual identity.

Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio), when informed of Antonio’s legislation, told reporters that, of course, he was not in favor of discrimination against anyone. Still, he wondered if discrimination against gays was a problem in Ohio.

“I haven’t heard much about this, but if it’s happening we have to deal with it,” Kasich said.

Antonio admitted it was hard to quantify LGBT discrimination. But she said that was not an indication that discrimination was more perception than reality. Antonio pointed out that since it isn’t against the law in Ohio, LGBT people who feel they are victims of discrimination can’t file a complaint with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission.

Antonio told Cleveland.com HB 160 is needed to “send a signal to businesses and individuals and their families that Ohio is a place where you are welcomed and protected.”

But, so far, during the past six General Assembly sessions that signal has not been sent, nor has the Pastor Protection Act been able to move out of the House Community and Family Advancement Committee.

Last year, GOP Rep. Bill Hayes offered House Bill 537 to combine the two bills — one to protect pastors, the other to protect LGBT people from discrimination — into a single piece of legislation.

“It’s an attempt to avoid a social civil war,” Hayes said.

But Hayes’ bill did not protect gay rights in hotels and restaurants. Gay rights supporters also argued it went too far in protecting religious liberty.

“We refuse to support legislation that carves out exceptions for people that are often the most vulnerable and stigmatized,” said Lisa Wurm, policy manager for the ACLU of Ohio. “We will not sacrifice the rights of transgender people in our work for full legal equality.”

So, that idea went nowhere in 2016. But House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger told Cleveland.com in March 2017 that religious freedom (i.e. the Pastor Protection Act) and a law banning LGBT discrimination are not mutually exclusive.

Marc Kovac believes the details of Hayes’ proposal might have been inadequate, but the concept of compromise could still work.

“I have talked to few people who think discrimination is OK or who want to force churches to support other lifestyles,” Kovac opined. “Given our current political climate, it would be a refreshing approach to policy-making by our elected officials.”