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Lawmaker Proposes Bill To Ensure Clergy Aren’t “Forced” To Perform Same-Sex Weddings

Jul 6, 2015

Republican State Representative Nino Vitale
Credit State of Ohio

The first piece of legislation related to last month’s US Supreme Court ruling upholding the right of same-sex couples to marry is making the rounds at the Statehouse. 

Ohio Public Radio’s Karen Kasler has details.

It’s called the “Pastor Protection Act”, and in light of the ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, its goal should be pretty clear – to ensure that pastors, ministers and clergy members can’t be forced into performing ceremonies that go against their religious beliefs. Sponsoring Rep. Nino Vitale (R-Urbana) says while this is coming after the same-sex marriage decision, it’s actually rooted in the ruling in the Hobby Lobby case – which said employers don’t have to do things that go against their religious beliefs. “This law is really patterned off that same federal language, and it really doesn’t deal with homosexuality specifically,” Vitale said. “It deals with anything, really, that would have to do with protecting the conscience rights of a faith community.” 

Vitale says ministers in his district had come to him with their concerns about the ruling. Rev. Tim Throckmorton is the pastor at Crossroads Church in Circleville and is a board member of the Citizens for Community Values, which helped put the amendment banning same-sex marriage in Ohio on the 2004 ballot. He’s not in Vitale’s district, but he’s worried, because he says though there’s language in the ruling that says clergy don’t have to perform same-sex marriages, that language is only as good as the first lawsuit from a couple he would refuse to marry. “If they would take that the wrong way, get offended, perhaps they could issue a lawsuit or a lawsuit could come toward our church or toward me, and then as it works its way up the court – quite honestly I’m concerned because I don’t feel the Court made a good decision here,” Throckmorton said. 

But other church leaders disagree. “There will be no lawsuit. Someone who is gay will not go to a pastor who does not want to marry them. That’s just crazy,” said Rev. Tim Ahrens, the pastor of the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in downtown Columbus. He’s been working with those who’ve been promoting marriage equality. “You’re only going to go to people who are favorable or friendly to you to do the wedding. So they’re not in danger and that’s ridiculous,” Ahrens said. “They need to just drop the initiative and get on with the work of the legislature which is really to take care of education, care for the poor and address the issues of Ohio. This is not an issue.” 

And Elyzabeth Holford with Equality Ohio, the state’s leading LGBT rights group, says there’s no effort to force clergy into anything. “I don’t think that anybody is interested in altering the sanctity of individual private churches,” Holford said. “That hasn’t ever changed, and there’s absolutely no reason to try to work through that.” 

But Holford says she and others who have backed marriage equality do have a new legislative goal – passing non-discrimination legislation. “We’re specifically focused on both the statewide legislative effort and then in addition we have just launched an effort to pass non-discrimination ordinances in every city and village across Ohio,” said Holford. 

But Vitale says with his Pastor Protection Act, the goal is also to prevent discrimination and find a way for people to live together in what he calls a secular, tolerant culture. “So the effort behind this bill is to really get the groups that I think are going to be in conflict with each other and to allow them, I guess, to propose things to each other but not impose things on each other.” 

Vitale is still searching for co-sponsors for his bill, which he says is modeled after a measure that passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in Texas. Similar bills are before lawmakers in Alabama, Oklahoma and Tennessee.