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Bill would hike penalty for disturbing worship

Special to the Legal News

Published: May 12, 2022

The Ohio House of Representatives last month passed a measure to increase the penalty for disturbing a lawful meeting when committed with the intent to disrupt or disquiet religious worship, whether in-person or virtual.
According to joint sponsors of the bill, which is titled the Sacred Spaces Act, it was developed in conjunction with the Ohio attorney general’s office to protect religious services from disruptive behavior.
Citing six relatively recent instances in which various worship services throughout the state had been interrupted, Republican Reps. Rick Carfagna of Westerville and Mark Johnson of Chillicothe said it was unfortunate that these types of instances have occurred.
The lawmakers explained that under current law “disturbing a lawful meeting” is a fourth-degree misdemeanor and prohibits a person, with purpose to prevent or disrupt a lawful meeting, procession, or gathering, from doing either of the following:
• doing any act which obstructs or interferes with the due conduct of such meeting, procession, or gathering; or
• making any utterance, gesture, or display which outrages the sensibilities of the group.
“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,” they wrote in joint testimony. “Under these new scenarios, the penalty would be increased from a fourth-degree misdemeanor to a first-degree misdemeanor.”
Mike Rodgers, director of Policy and Legislation at the attorney general’s office, detailed one of the events that prompted the bill.
“Last January, a group of protestors entered St. Joseph Cathedral in downtown Columbus, carrying signs and loudly chanting,” he said during testimony in support of HB 504. “The chaotic scene that unfolded included a protestor rushing toward the pulpit and protestors resisting removal by law enforcement.”
He said services during the Respect Life Mass ultimately were halted and unable to resume until protestors were removed from the premises.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, our office became aware of multiple Jewish services being conducted remotely that were also interrupted,” Rodgers continued.
Carfagna and Johnson noted that several states, including New York, South Carolina and Massachusetts, have laws in place specifically addressing the interruption or disturbance of religious services.
“California, in fact, has a stringent ‘Religious Service Interruption Law’ in place that provides for a misdemeanor punishment of not more than one year in jail, $1,000 fine, or both if an individual ‘intentionally disturbs or disquiets any assemblage of people met for religious worship at a tax-exempt place of worship, by profane discourse, rude or indecent behavior, or by any unnecessary noise, either within the place where the meeting is held, or so near it as to disturb the order and solemnity of the meeting,’” they continued.
“Places of worship––no matter the religion nor whether physical or online––should be always remain sanctuaries free from harassment or menacing.”
The bill had not been taken up by the Senate at the time of publication.
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