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By Bob Vitale
A “religious freedom” bill is on hold in the Ohio House of Representatives because of concerns that it’s nearly identical to legislation in Arizona that critics say would allow business owners to shun LGBT customers and anyone else they don’t like.
State Rep. Bill Patmon, a Cleveland Democrat who is a co-sponsor of the proposed Religious Freedom Restoration Act (House Bill 376) told Outlook this afternoon that “you won’t see any more hearings or anything” until the bill is rewritten to eliminate any potential for discrimination in public accommodations.
“I’m 6-foot-five-and-a-half, I’m black and bald-headed,” Patmon said. “Can you imagine what I think about discrimination?”
Patmon said he has set up a meeting with the ACLU and will reach out to discuss the bill with the LGBT community as well. He said its purpose was to ensure people’s right to wear a cross or a yarmulke while at their jobs without state or local governments saying they can’t.
Supporters say the legislation is modeled after a 1993 federal law that courts say applies only to the federal government.
“That was never the intention of the bill,” he said of concerns about potential discrimination. “When the questions in Arizona came up, I said, ‘Let’s slow down here. Let’s make sure we’re not setting up a discriminatory process.'”
Entire sections of the Ohio bill, sponsored by 45 representatives, are identical to controversial Arizona legislation. Just like the Arizona legislation, which awaits the signature or veto of Gov. Jan Brewer, the Ohio bill would curtail the state’s power to take any action – such as enforcing anti-discrimination laws – that affects someone’s exercise of religion.
Both laws define “state action” and “exercise of religion” the same way, and both require the state to pay attorney fees and other costs of people who use their religion as a defense in court.
Here are similar sections of both bills:
Arizona: “Exercise of religion” means the practice or observance of religion, including the ability to act or refusal to act in a manner substantially motivated by a religious belief, whether or not the exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief
Ohio: “Exercise of religion” means the practice or observance of religion. “Exercise of religion” includes, but is not limited to, the ability to act or the refusal to act in a manner that is substantially motivated by one’s sincerely held religious belief, whether or not the exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief.
Arizona: For the purposes of this section, “state action” means any action by the government or the implementation or application of any law, including state and local laws, ordinances, rules, regulations and policies, whether statutory or otherwise, and whether the implementation or application is made or attempted to be made by the government or nongovernmental person.
Ohio: “State action” means the implementation or application of any law, including, but not limited to, state and local laws, ordinances, rules, regulations, and policies, whether statutory or otherwise, or any other action by the state, a political subdivision of the state, an instrumentality of the state or political subdivision of the state, or a public official that is authorized by law in the state.
Arizona: Except as provided in subsection C of this section, state action shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability. State action may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if the opposing party demonstrates that application of the burden to the person’s exercise of religion in this particular instance is both: 1. In furtherance of a compelling governmental interest. 2. The least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.
Ohio: State action or an action by any person based on state action shall not burden a person’s right to exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless it is demonstrated that applying the burden to that person’s exercise of religion in that particular instance is both of the following: (1) Essential to further a compelling governmental interest; (2) The least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.
Arizona: A person whose religious exercise is burdened in violation of this section may assert that violation as a claim or defense in a judicial proceeding, regardless of whether the government is a party to the proceeding. The person asserting such a claim or defense may obtain appropriate relief. A party who prevails in any action to enforce this article against a government shall recover attorney fees and costs.
Ohio: A person whose exercise of religion has been burdened or is likely to be burdened in violation of this section may assert that violation or impending violation as a claim or defense in a judicial proceeding, regardless of whether the state or a political subdivision of the state is a party to the proceeding. The person asserting that claim or defense may obtain appropriate relief, including relief against the state or a political subdivision of the state. Appropriate relief includes, but is not limited to, injunctive relief, declaratory relief, compensatory damages, and the recovery of costs and reasonable attorney’s fees.
State Rep. Michael Stinziano, a Columbus Democrat who is his party’s ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee, told Outlook that a new draft of the legislation that he has seen doesn’t alleviate his worries.
“It doesn’t change one single thing as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
The Ohio bill has had two hearings before the House Judiciary Committee. Patmon described it as “a no-brainer” when it was introduced at a news conference in December. He said some of the people in his district “need to be exposed to the grace of God.”
“This is a Judeo-Christian country,” Patmon said. “As we have gone through time and decided we were going to give different definitions and talk about how there’s a separation between church and state… there’s no separation between God and man.”
Rep. Tim Derickson, an Oxford Republican who’s the other primary sponsor, said in a news release that the bill would prevent the state from passing any laws that “substantially burden” a person’s religious liberties.
“It is important that religious and political leaders work together to defend religious liberties on behalf of our citizens of all faiths,” he said at the December news conference.
Supporters include the Catholic Conference of Ohio, the Ohio Council of Churches, and Citizens for Community Values.