COLUMBUS, Ohio — As the state continuously puts forward legislation that LGBTQ+ advocates say is discriminatory, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is challenging those bills and attempting to push forward the Ohio Fairness Act.
Just a week after Republican lawmakers passed a bill that would require genital inspections for any female high school or college athlete that is "accused" or "suspected" of being transgender, reaction to the bill has put Ohio and News 5's coverage in the spotlight on cable news networks, late night talk show circuit and national newspapers.
Ohio is one of the nearly 30 states with no LGBT non-discrimination protections, according to data collected by Freedom for All Americans. This means it is technically legal in most parts of the state to discriminate against someone for their sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.
"Ohio has to move in a different direction than we are right now," said state Sen. Nickie Antonio, a Democrat from Lakewood. "These kinds of bills that are hateful and take us backwards will not be the kinds of policies that attract people to want to come here, to raise a family, to put down roots."
The Northeast Ohio Democrat is the only openly gay lawmaker, and she said now is the time to introduce laws that welcome people into the state.
"To deny us the full depth and breadth of protections and equality for no reason other than who we are and who we love is not fair," she added.
The Ohio Fairness Act is not new. It has been introduced every General Assembly for at least 20 years, making this time the 10th attempt — six of the 10 are from Antonio.
There is more support this time.
Senate Bill 119 and its companion House Bill 208 are currently sitting, stalled in committee. The Senate version was introduced by Antonio and state Sen. Michael Rulli, a Republican from Salem; the House version by state Reps. Michael Skindell, a Democrat from Lakewood, and Brett Hillyer, a Republican from Uhrichsville.
"It provides protections in housing, employment and in the public sphere," Antonio said.
In a 5-4 decision on June of 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court declared all states must allow same-sex marriages and recognize same-sex marriages — whether they occurred in or outside the state.
Three years later, SCOTUS sided with a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, citing the First Amendment allowed for him to deny the couple, because of his religious beliefs.
"It's a public accommodations-aimed act, but there's nothing fair about a bill that will end up discriminating in the name of discrimination against millions of Ohioans and their opinions," said Linda Harvey, ultra-conservative activist for Mission America.
The Colorado baker, Jack Phillips, was targeted by cancel culture for having his own opinions, she said.
"What happens is: you must bake the cake, you must do the flowers for the wedding, you must take the picture, you must print the flier advertising the Drag Queen Story Hour," she added, sharing her thoughts of what the LGBTQ+ perspective is. "Or we will intimidate your business, we will shame you publicly."
"Cancel culture" is when someone is called out, and occasionally punished, for what is perceived to be "problematic" behavior.
"The LGBTQ movement and the Fairness Act want to try to position this as something that's fair," Harvey said. "It's totally discriminatory, and in some ways, frankly, fascist."
When asked by News 5's Morgan Trau what was fascist about it, she cited the "reframing of language" in the constitution to include queer individuals under non-discrimination laws.
"[Lawmakers are] giving this level of influence to the badly-behaving LGBTQ movement," she added. "They want to redefine the language as it currently exists in Ohio law so that sex discrimination, every place sex discrimination appears, it will magically mean that there is a defense for the behaviors of homosexuality and gender confusion."
The freedom of religion was one of Harvey's biggest points.
"You're asking people to be compelled to violate some of the deepest sexual morality expressions in our faith," Harvey said. "Compulsory speech has never been an American value, and I don't think it's one in Ohio, and I don't think it's one that helps business. It forces compulsory acceptance of behaviors that people may not be approving of."
The Act could lead to more lawsuits, she added.
"I don't have any proof of this, but it sure seems that some of the incidents around the country — the cake baking and all of that — were carefully engineered to provoke their excuse for a lawsuit," the conservative said.
She did not have statistics to prove that cities in states that have LGBT non-discrimination ordinances have more lawsuits.
Harvey also spoke in support of the Save Women’s Sports Act, which passed the Ohio House by putting the language into a totally different bill at the last minute.
Antonio couldn't disagree more.
"All these bills, I think it's a dog whistle," the Democrat said. "It's creating a very hateful and bigoted situation."
The lawmaker is referring to numerous bills, including but not limited to:
The Save Women's Sports Act, H.B. 151/61, which would prohibit transgender girls and women from participating in athletics with cisgender girls and women. The bill also requires genital inspections for anyone "suspected" of being trans.
Save Adolescents From Experimentation (SAFE) Act, H.B. 454, which would ban gender-affirming care for LGBTQ+ minors. This includes hormone blockers, hormone replacement therapy (HRT), surgical procedures and potentially mental health services.
Divisive Concepts or the "Both Sides" bill, H.B. 327 and 322, which would prevent schools from teaching about arbitrary "controversial topics." The bill sponsor told News 5 that this means the Holocaust would be taught from "both sides," including the perspective of "German soldiers."
Ohio's version of Florida's "Don't Say Gay, Don't Say Race" bill, as it is called by educators, activists and Democrats, since it uses the same language in Divisive Concepts but explicitly states controls and curbs discussion on sexuality or gender in schools.
"Do we want to take Ohio backwards and into a superstitious, outmoded, demonizing a tiny group of people that need our care and support, not our hate and bigotry?" Antonio asked. "Or do we want to say, let's be reasonable people."
In regards to the transgender athletes bill, Senate President Matt Huffman, a Republican from Lima, seemed to cautiously take the middle ground.
"I'd like to have hearings on it and not have it slipped in under the door as everyone's walking out and say, 'why didn't you do something?'" Huffman said. "The issue, I would like to deal with and get resolved by the end of the year, and whether that is through House Bill 151 or through a Senate bill or some other vehicle, I don't know."
The president goes on to say that there is a fundamental fairness issue, and it should be dealt with.
"I'm certainly sympathetic to what the bill is trying to do," he added. "I'm also sympathetic to the people that it may affect."
Like all of these issues, he said, there are nuances and that is why "sliding floor amendments in unrelated bills is a bad way to do business."
In regards to the language about genital inspection, Huffman said he doesn't have an opinion on it — because that isn't his specialty.
"Those are the kind of things that you need to sit down, you have testimony about, you work out the details, you talk to experts," he added. "And in all fairness, me trying to answer that question is exactly what I'm criticizing other people to do, which is just to go ahead and vote — you're really not sure exactly how all that is going to be."
None of the bills will be heard again until the fall.