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Ohio Senators Propose Increasing Penalties for Disrupting Religious Services

State lawmakers are proposing stiffer penalties in cases where an individual disrupts a religious service. The measure passed the Ohio House in April and is now progressing through the Senate.

In a hearing of the Judiciary Committee last week. Mike Rodgers, director of policy and legislation from the Attorney General’s office put forward the concept behind the “Sacred Spaces Act.”

“Existing law already states the disruption of a lawful meeting is punishable as a misdemeanor of the fourth degree. House Bill (HB) 504 builds upon this existing section of Ohio law and adds an enhancement if the meeting that is disrupted is an assemblage of people met for religious worship,” Rodgers said.

HB 504 sponsored by Representatives Rick Carfagna (R-Genoa Township) (pictured right) and Mark Johnson (R-Chillicothe) (pictured left), would increase penalties for disrupting a religious gathering to a first-degree misdemeanor. The stiffer penalties would apply inside a house of worship, anywhere on its property, or any virtual gatherings held over a digital platform such as Zoom.

“House Bill 504 creates new distinctions of ‘disturbing a lawful meeting’ when committed with the intent to disturb or disquiet an assemblage for religious worship. This includes both in-person and virtual gatherings. Under these new scenarios, the penalty would be increased from a fourth-degree misdemeanor to a first-degree misdemeanor. Places of worship no matter the religion nor whether physical or online should always remain sanctuaries free from harassment or menacing,” Carfagna and Johnson said in written testimony.

According to Ohio Revised Code Section 2929.24 for a misdemeanor of the first degree, violators can serve up to 180 days in jail and be responsible for up to $1,000 in fines.

Rodgers and other proponents gave examples of individuals disrupting Jewish services with antisemitic harassment.

“I have a disturbing number of colleagues who have seen their flocks engaged in worship be disrupted, harassed, and intimidated. It is simply unacceptable that there are Jewish communities where things like funeral services, shared digitally with those who mourn at a distance, are sometimes interrupted with things like Nazi symbolism, pornography, and racial slurs,” Rabbi Aryeh Ballaban from the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati said.

In May 2020, a protester interrupted a webinar about antisemitism hosted by a Jewish student group from Massachusetts. The protestor pulled down their shirt collar to reveal a swastika tattoo on their chest, according to the Anti-Defamation League, the 110-year-old progressive group whose mission is “[t]o stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.”

Proponents also cited the protesters who disrupted a local Respect Life Mass at Columbus’ St. Joseph Cathedral January 2021.

Eight pro-choice activists stormed into St. Joseph Cathedral during its Respect Life Mass. The Annual event is held by the diocese on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade and the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in the United States. Media accounts at the time say protestors were escorted out of the cathedral by police and diocese officials after they marched through the sanctuary shouting about abortion rights being under attack.

The protestors reportedly chanted “two, four, six, eight this church teaches hate” and carried signs such as “fund abortion not cops.”

Senator Niraj Antani (R-Miamisburg), expressed reservations about the proposal. He inquired if there are any other precedents where “religious speech” receives heightened protection.

Rodgers acknowledged that he was unable to think of any other such precedents at that moment.

The bill passed the Ohio House 95-1 with 68 representatives signing on as co-sponsors. It has yet to obtain any opposition in committee.

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Hannah Poling is a lead reporter at The Ohio Star and The Star News Network. Follow Hannah on Twitter @HannahPoling1. Email tips to [email protected]
Photo “Rick Carfagna” by Rick Carfagna. Photo “Mark Johnson” by Representative Mark Johnson. Background Photo “Church Interior” by Robert Stokoe.


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