‘Zoombombing’ a religious service in Ohio can now net jail time, thanks to advocacy by Jewish groups

By Ron Kampeas, JTA

In its closing session, Ohio’s legislature passed a law imposing penalties of up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine for “zoombombing” religious services, a practice that antisemites have used to intimidate Jews.

The law, Increasing Penalties for Disturbing a Religious Service, passed unanimously in the state Senate. It had previously passed in the state House, 95-1.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost sought the law after discovering that disrupting a religious service was only considered a class four misdemeanor, incurring penalties of up to 30 days in jail and $250 fines.

A Republican who was elected in 2018, Yost has sought legal action against abortion-rights activists who have targeted anti-abortion clinics since the U.S. Supreme Court ended federal abortion rights last summer.

While anti-abortion protesters have for decades targeted abortion clinics, sometimes with deadly violence, some pro-abortion protesters have more recently sought to disrupt church services as part of their activism.

In formally endorsing the bill in November, Yost described the impetus: A Catholic church in Columbus in January was conducting an annual “memorial service for the unborn” when protesters raided the church, shouting “This church teaches hate!”

“Last January, a group of protestors entered St. Joseph Cathedral in downtown Columbus, Ohio carrying signs and loudly chanting. The chaotic scene that unfolded included a protestor rushing toward the pulpit and protestors resisting removal by law enforcement,” Yost wrote. “The service was ultimately halted and unable to resume until all protestors were removed from the premises.”

Yost wanted to make the offense a first-degree misdemeanor, which incurs harsher penalties. The Republican legislators Yost asked to advance the legislation, consulted with religious communities, and as a result of talks with Jewish groups, added into the legislation zoombombing, which antisemites used multiple times to target Jewish services that went online because of the Covid pandemic.

Ohio Jewish Communities Executive Director Howie Beigelman. OJC.

Howie Beigelman, the executive director of Ohio Jewish Communities, which represents the state’s Jewish organizations on the state level, worked closely with the sponsors on the bill and credited the state’s Jewish Federations, its Jewish Community Relations Councils, its Jewish community security directors, and the state offices of the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee for lobbying for the bill.

“They wanted to do the bill,” Beigelman said of the sponsoring legislators. “And then they talked to us and we said generally the bill is important, but we also want you to be very specific about zoombombing. And they’re like, what’s that? I was like, ‘Well, let me tell you, it’s happening a lot to our community.’”

The Ohio legislature also passed unanimously the Testing Your Faith Act which requires public colleges and universities to accommodate religious observance when it conflicts with exams and assignments.

Ohio Jewish communities advocated for this legislation as well, and credited Convergence on Campus, a chaplaincy group, as well as Jewish groups working on and off campus for their advocacy.

To read the complete January 2023 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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