Pastors, religious groups speak to Ohio Fairness Act

A LGBTQ+ rights demonstration in Michigan. Photo by Susan J. Demas, Michigan Advance.

Religious leaders across the state had their turn to speak on the Ohio Fairness Act, though many spoke on issues that were taken out of the bill as soon as the committee hearing began.

The sponsors of House Bill 369, a bill that originally expanded state civil rights law to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, pared down the bill in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling made in June.

The federal court’s decision said language in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applies to sexual orientation and gender identity in terms of job discrimination.

The Ohio Fairness Act, in its new form, applies the concept of that court ruling, and specifies that any provision of the Ohio Revised Code “respecting sex discrimination includes discrimination because of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity or expression,” according to a synopsis by the state Legislative Service Commission.

While state Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, said the substitute bill needs more work, he called the previous version of the bill “completely unacceptable.” He said some parts of the bill effectively created affirmative action for LGBTQ individuals, and a provision to revise state school curriculums to include segments on gays and lesbians was a non-starter.

“That was never going to fly,” Seitz said.

He added that any legislation would need to include explicit mention of court cases that have come out in favor of religious rights, such as the Colorado wedding cake baker who took his right to deny service to a gay couple to court, and won.

Testimony began with the author of the companion bill in the Senate, state Sen. Nickie Antonio, D-Lakewood.

Antonio said the rights supporters of the bill are fighting for are not special rights, and are in fact held by a majority of Americans. But many in the LGBTQ community, like her, still have to fight to be able to live without discrimination.

“I’m a sitting senator in the state of Ohio, I still can be denied housing,” Antonio said. “I can be told when I take my family out to eat to leave a restaurant because my children have two moms.”

After Antonio, the head of LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Ohio, and members of Ohio State University student government, spoke in support of the bill, several pastors from Ohio churches unified in their dissent of the bill.

Many of the pastors said discrimination protections are already a part of law, therefore the bill is not needed and would add regulations that would be counterintuitive.

“This bill references fairness as an aim,” said Curt Sharbaugh, pastor of First Baptist Church in New Carlisle. “If it is unfair for restrooms to be regulated by one particular belief…then this bill has not corrected that issue.”

Most of the arguments made by religious leaders were abject denials that a transgender person can be their chosen gender rather than their biological makeup determined at birth.

“The bottom line is that the bill is based on a fundamental lie: that sex is distinct from gender identity or gender expression, or put another way, that a man can become a woman, or a woman can become a man,” said Aaron Baer, head of the religious rights advocacy group Citizens for Community Values.

Referring to the science of transgender health, and in support of the bill, Dr. Scott Leibowitz, medical director of behavioral health at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, said behavioral health has “shifted away from considering gender-diverse identities to be disorders.”

“These young people are not choosing this way of feeling or being, and the field of psychiatry widely considers them not to be mentally ill, which is based on a rigorous process to define and classify mental illness,” Leibowitz wrote in his testimony to the committee. “The brain studies done on transgender individuals demonstrate an innate biological underpinning to this phenomenon as one significant factor.”

No vote was made on the bill, so it remains in the House Civil Justice Committee for further hearings.

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