Commentary

06.24.14

Statehouse 2014: Religious Bigotry, Discrimination, Suppression—Oh My!

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It is understandably difficult to keep track of everything that goes on at the Statehouse.  We have a hard time ourselves. The current two-year legislative session is 75% over and, with important elections looming, we expect the Statehouse will be quieter during the fall until the lame duck session. That makes this a good time to briefly review some of the more notable developments thus far in 2014.

Early in the year, religious liberty was a hot topic. However what some called religious freedom, others called religious bigotry. House Bill 376 was introduced under the guise of providing protection for religious adherents when government decisions affect their beliefs and actions. What HB 376 would actually do is not act as a shield to protect against government meddling in religious affairs, but as a sword to deny others their rights. More specifically, some religious leaders and bodies want laws to endorse their discrimination against their gay and lesbian neighbors.

Ohio was actually behind many other states in passing so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Acts. In those states, RFRA laws like HB 376 had been used as a means to justify all manners of discrimination from refusing to provide police protection to certain communities, to allowing businesses to refuse service to certain individuals. Additionally, it spawned expensive lawsuits in many states that cost taxpayers and tied up court systems for years.

We met with the bill sponsors and the committee chair to express these concerns. They listened to us and agreed to work on a new draft. While we waited for that new version,  a controversy over an eerily similar bill erupted so loudly and visibly in Arizona, it sent shockwaves across the country with talks of boycotts, the Super Bowl, and equality. I’m happy to report that tsunami rolled right through Ohio and took HB 376 with it.

Around this same time, HB 333 was introduced. In a world of awful legislation, this one still stood out. It purported to “reform” disability law by placing a variety of limits on lawsuits filed under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and state non-discrimination laws. HB 333 would have required a wait period for people with disabilities to file a lawsuit, mandated that people who encountered accessibility issues give notice to noncompliant landlords and businesses, and would have held people with disabilities liable for attorneys’ fees if they failed to provide notice.

Immediately, advocates for people with disabilities, including the ACLU of Ohio, sprung into action to mobilize against this bill. Our first tactic was to point out the state legislation was unconstitutional because it cannot interfere with the federal ADA. Once that sunk in, we encouraged supporters at the Statehouse to protect rather than punish people with disabilities. That’s exactly what happened as HB 333 has been amended into a bill that barely resembles the original version and Ohio is better for it. We will continue to monitor HB 333’s progress.

No legislative update is complete without mentioning voting and elections – because the Ohio General Assembly never stops changing the laws. Unfortunately, the changes always seem to be for the worst. This session has been no different. Under the belief that having your vote counted should be more difficult, several bills have passed that put additional burdens on voters to comply with this ever-changing, often confusing area of law.

Apparently, it’s not enough to try and disqualify votes for seemingly inconsequential paperwork errors as lawmakers also slashed the number of days available for early voting in Ohio. This was done despite early voting’s overwhelming popularity with voters from all political parties. We tried to convince Ohio’s legislators that while these bills were being considered, their actions were misguided. They did not listen. Secretary of State Jon Husted then took the restrictions a step further by issuing a directive eliminating early voting on the weekends and evenings during the 2014 election.

All of these cuts mean that working Ohioans have substantially fewer opportunities to cast their ballots early. For many people who have inflexible work schedules, childcare duties, or lack of transportation, casting their ballots on a Tuesday in November is nearly impossible. While access to vote by mail is important for many people, we must remember many people want—and need—to participate in elections in person. In African American communities throughout Ohio, churches have mobilized “Souls to the Polls” programs focused on getting parishioners to vote after church.

Early voting has helped to lessen the long lines and confusion that marked past presidential elections. It’s also wildly popular, with a recent poll by the University of Akron Bliss Institute showing that 60% of Ohioans believe it has helped the state.

The fight for fair and accessible early voting hours did not end there, as we are now in court battling the laws that inexplicably cut early voting.

Stay tuned to our website for updates on that lawsuit and all of our legislative work.

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