Ohio senators are considering new penalties for disrupting church services

State lawmakers are proposing tougher penalties for cases where a person interrupts a church service. The measure passed the Ohio House in April and is now working its way through the Senate.

At a Judiciary Committee hearing last week, Michael Rodgers of the Attorney General’s Office laid out the idea behind the “Sacred Spaces Act.” Current law, he explained, “already provides that disturbing a lawful assembly is a fourth-degree misdemeanor.” .”

“House Bill 504 builds on this existing section of Ohio law and adds an improvement when the disturbed meeting is a gathering of people who have met for worship,” he explained.

Under the law, disturbing a religious gathering would be a first-degree misdemeanor. The increased penalties would apply inside a house of worship or elsewhere on his property, as well as at a virtual gathering over a platform like Zoom.

Why the legislature acts

Rodgers and other advocates cited examples of Jewish worship being disrupted by anti-Semitic harassment.

“I have a disturbing number of colleagues who have seen their flocks disturbed, harassed and intimidated in worship,” said Rabbi Aryeh Ballaban of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati.

“It’s just unacceptable,” he continued, “that there are Jewish communities where things like funeral services that are shared digitally with those grieving remotely are sometimes interrupted by things like Nazi symbolism, pornography, and racial slurs.” “

But the backers’ other main example – and the seeming motivator behind the measure’s introduction – doesn’t exactly fit the same notch.

Proponents cited protesters who intervened at a local Respect Life Mass at St. Joseph Cathedral in Columbus last January. Both major sponsors of the bill, Rep. Mark Johnson, R-Chilicothe, and former Rep. Rick Carfagna, R-Genoa Township, are Catholic.

Although the Respect Life Mass is held in a cathedral and the priest administers the Eucharist, the Mass – held annually on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade is held – an explicitly political dimension. Tasteless as the protest may have been, the protesters were responding to the church’s longstanding political activity — not the race or ethnicity of its parishioners.

During last week’s hearing, Sen. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg, appeared at least somewhat skeptical of the proposal. He urged Rodgers if there were other precedents in which “religious speech” received heightened protections. After receiving an unsatisfactory answer, Antani moved on. “That might have been an answer to a question,” he insisted, “(but) it wasn’t an answer to my question.” Rodgers acknowledged that he couldn’t think of any other such precedents right now.

Nevertheless, the measure seems to be on solid ground. It passed the Ohio House 95-1, and 68 representatives signed on as co-sponsors. It also has yet to pick up an opponent in committee.

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