Ohio religious freedom bill dropped

A proposed Ohio law whose broad language would allow business owners to cite religious beliefs in refusing service to whomever they choose was pulled Wednesday by its sponsors in response to overwhelming criticism to a similar bill in Arizona.

Supporters of House Bill 376, including Ohio Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta, who co-sponsored the bill, say the bill was intended to protect religious freedom and prevent legal ramifications for people who act on those beliefs.

“It’s a case of trying to criminalize a difference of opinion,” said Thompson on Thursday.

Thompson rejected the idea that the Ohio bill as introduced would have had wide enough implications to allow bricks-and-mortar businesses like restaurants, hotels, and retail stores to turn away customers.

However, Thompson drew the distinction between allowing anyone to shop in a given store and then going so far as to force a business owner to be an active participant in an event with which they do not agree, such as a wedding or party.

A store is a more passive transaction where a customer’s private life is not a huge part of the transaction, he said.

“But when you compel someone to participate and endorse what you want to do, that’s intruding in their freedom,” he said.

Thompson cited a New Mexico case where a photographer was sued for refusing to photograph a same-sex wedding.

In a similar Oregon lawsuit, a bakery was found to have violated a gay couple’s rights by refusing to make them a wedding cake.

But opponents of the Ohio and Arizona law say it is vague enough to open the door to a slippery slope of discrimination.

Marietta resident Marcie Petty, 63, said she is a Christian who opposes same-sex marriage, but she also opposes a law that would allow businesses to deny service based on sexual orientation or other factors.

“If you start giving businesses the right to say who’ll they’ll serve based on religion or sexual orientation or color….it’ll eventually be to where they can deny you because they don’t like how you dress or look,” she said.

Petty acknowledged that a business owner who made such distinctions could drive away customers.

“You might have some people who go into a restaurant and are offended because a gay person is sitting there. But also you might have people who don’t want to go into that restaurant because they deny service,” she said.

The arguments in Arizona centered around possible negative economic impact just as much as issues of discrimination.

Even the possibility of the Arizona bill, which was vetoed by Republican Gov. Jan Brewer Wednesday night, caused economic repercussions for the state. The Hispanic National Business Association canceled its 2015 convention in Phoenix in response to the legislation, and several other businesses threatened to move business if the law was passed, according to the Associated Press. There was also expected to be a hit to tourism if the law went into effect.

While Arizona’s bill received attention because it was passed by the both the state House and Senate, it is not the only state to put forth such legislation.

In addition to the Ohio bill, Mississippi, Idaho, South Dakota, Tennessee and Oklahoma have introduced similar bills, according to the Associated Press.

Marietta area minister Bob Jones, 55, said some things-like religious conviction-are more important than money and he would support legislation in the future.

“I think its pretty courageous to make a decision that is going to lose you money,” he said. “I think in a democracy, a business owner should have that right.”

Marietta business owner Glenn Newman echoed his belief that the issue is one of freedom.

“It’s not a religious issue. It’s freedom. The government has no right to tell a private business who they can and who they cannot do business with,” said Newman, who owns The Gallery on Front Street.

Newman went on to say that even if the law were to be enacted, he would not use it to deny anyone service.

“If people don’t like our service, they won’t come there. If you come to our place and we’re rude to you, you don’t come back. If we’re nice, you will come back,” he said.

Shelbi Welsh, general manager of the Comfort Inn in Marietta, said she thinks discrimination for any reason is a bad business practice.

“We’re in a service industry. We’re not meant to judge. I don’t think anyone’s religion or anything like that should be able to affect them being able to come in and get a hotel room,” she said.

Welsh speculated that businesses that were given the option and chose to deny service would definitely lose business and that the Comfort Inn would gladly welcome guests turned away from other hotels.

The main sponsors of the Ohio bill, Rep. Tim Derickson, R-Oxford, and Rep. Bill Patmon, D-Cleveland, agreed Wednesday to indefinitely suspend discussion on the bill.

In a statement, the two men said the bill was not intended to allow discrimination, rather prevent it.

“We want to ensure that no law that we pass in this chamber is misconstrued to be discriminatory in any way,” they said.

Patmon is quoted in The Plain Dealer saying, “We thought it would be a good idea to protect people who wanted to wear their Yarmulke to work or put their Bible on their desk and not be punished in any form for that.”

Thompson echoed that intention.

“In colleges and in public schools, people are very limited in their speech and how they show their religion,” he said.

In such a case, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld a decision of a school district that fired a Mount Vernon teacher who refused orders to remove a Bible and other religious materials from his classroom. However, the court went on to say that the district overstepped its authority when telling the man to remove his personal Bible from his desk.

Marietta resident Trent Offenberger, 39, said he would oppose a law like the one put forth in Ohio and Arizona.

An individual’s personal life should not matter to prospective businesses, he said.

Chastity Carver, 38, of Marietta agreed.

“No matter whatever your age, sex, religion, sexual preference, you have a right to eat or shop whereever you want,” she said.

According to the Plain Dealer, Patmon said that lawmakers intend to redraft the bill with “tighter language that protects religious freedom without opening the door to discrimination.”