Ohio Fairness Act falls victim to effects of Statehouse scandal and COVID-19

The 133rd General Assembly has been simultaneously one of the most exciting, hopeful, turbulent, and disappointing two years for LGBTQ+ equality at the Ohio Statehouse. Yesterday, the Ohio Senate and Ohio House went home for the holidays, spelling the end of the General Assembly and the end of our chances to pass the Ohio Fairness Act, protections for youth against the harmful practice of conversion therapy, and other LGBTQ+ friendly pieces of legislation before the end of the year. 

At the beginning of 2020, it looked like this was going to be the year that we closed the chapter of legalized discrimination in Ohio. In February, we had a hearing on the House version of the Ohio Fairness Act which had the most proponent testimony ever (over 300 submissions) and a committee that seemed committed to moving it through the legislative process. But that momentum came to a sudden halt when COVID-19 emerged in our state in March, killing thousands of our fellow Ohioans and grinding the already slow wheels of state government to a halt. The committee did not meet between February and May—the period of time that we expected to see serious movement of the bill. 

In July, a second pandemic in Ohio politics—corruption—reared its ugly head. Then House Speaker Larry Householder was arrested on racketeering charges in a $60 million bribery scandal surrounding a ratepayer bailout of nuclear power plants, which plunged the Ohio Statehouse into chaos that resulted in another several months of inaction. As a result, the House Civil Justice Committee did not meet again until after the November election. Together with the pandemic, the HB6 corruption scandal at the Statehouse took away 6 precious months of activity from the legislative calendar.

Despite these barriers, we got closer to passing the Ohio Fairness Act than ever before. Both the Senate version and the House version were introduced with bipartisan support for the first time ever, and both bills had three hearings in their respective committees. This is the most progress we have had in the legislative process since a similar bill was introduced and passed the House over ten years ago. In the House, the Ohio Fairness Act had an opposition testimony hearing, which illustrated the stark contrast between the radical anti-LGBTQ+ individuals and organizations in the state pushing against equality and fairness and the compassionate, measured voices advocating for the bill. 

Both Rep. Brett Hillyer, the House-side Republican sponsor, and Sen. Mike Rulli, the Republican Senate co-sponsor, worked tirelessly with long-time champions and Democratic sponsors Rep. Mike Skindell and Sen. Nickie Antonio to bring attention and thought to this issue from House and Senate leadership, and there remained a viable path to passage all the way to the end. Thanks to these strong allies and advocates in the Statehouse, we will restart these efforts again in the New Year and will enter the 134th General Assembly with more momentum than ever. 

Ultimately, the decision not to pass the Ohio Fairness Act was made by just a few people, leaders in the House and Senate who, for unknown reasons, decided that they were not willing to bring it to a vote. This happened to a number of bipartisan efforts, including SB3, which would have made much needed criminal justice reforms around drug sentencing, and HB305, an effort to improve Ohio’s unconstitutional school funding formula. We know this is the nature of the fast-moving Lame Duck period. For years, LGBTQ+ people have been involuntary victims of various political conflicts, and unfortunately, the Ohio Fairness Act suffered that same fate this General Assembly. Despite knowing that they had the support they needed to pass the Ohio Fairness Act, these leaders let politics prevent the Legislature from doing what is right for Ohio in Lame Duck. 

In contrast to these leaders, there are caring, compassionate people in the Ohio Legislature of all political stripes who want to see our state move out of the era of legalized discrimination against our LGBTQ+ neighbors and family members but have remained silent out of fear of political backlash. The data shows that there is no need for such fears. As we discussed in our 2020 election analysis, those legislators who publicly supported policies that promoted LGBTQ+ equality did very well in both the primary and general elections, and the two Republicans who sponsored or co-sponsored a pro-LGBTQ+ bill and were up for reelection were unchallenged in their primaries and won their general elections by a larger margin than the previous election. 

In school, we learned about Newton’s Laws of Physics. The law of inertia states that an object at rest stays at rest, and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by a stronger force. Until a few years ago, Ohio’s Legislature had been moving away from LGBTQ+ equality at great speed—with a constitutional amendment banning marriage equality and administrative actions from agencies across the state making life more difficult for LGBTQ+ Ohioans. But we, the LGBTQ+ community here in Ohio, are a stronger force. We have gradually slowed the momentum of division and anti-LGBTQ+ policy to a halt by stopping every anti-LGBTQ+ bill introduced in the past two General Assemblies. We are now pushing our state in the opposite direction, toward an Ohio where people are welcome, affirmed and flourishing.

Over the holiday break and into the next General Assembly, Ohio legislators have a choice to make. There is no more time for being non-committal and refusing to take a position. In the hearing on November 19th, they were shown two Ohios. One provided a path to stronger economic competition with other states, an Ohio that welcomes all people, while protecting religious liberty and ensuring that our state’s most vulnerable are protected from discrimination. The other showed an Ohio set on moving backwards, an Ohio that is dedicated to perpetuating harmful lies about LGBTQ+ people and attacking hard-worker taxpayers because of who they are and whom they love. 

We believe in the formeran Ohio where LGBTQ+ Ohioans can fully access legal and lived equality.

LGBTQ+ Equality in Ohio will be won. Of that we are certain. But our collective work towards manifesting it continues. We’ve made incredible progress, and we are on the right track. There are 132 legislators in Ohio—99 representatives and 33 senators—and each of them represent a diverse group of Ohioans and are important in our victory. We are committed to meeting each and every one of them where they are and helping them along on their journey to support their LGBTQ+ friends, family members, and constituents. 

We have already begun conversations with allies in the Statehouse to expand the diverse coalition of legislators supporting this and our other legislative efforts and hope to re-introduce the Ohio Fairness Act early in the new session. Until then, know that while we were disappointed to not get the Fairness Act across the finish line this year, we are redoubling our efforts to secure these protections—and much more—in the 134th General Assembly.