Over the past few months, Republicans in statehouses across the country have been working diligently to curtail their constituents’ civil rights. After Florida’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill was signed by Governor Ron DeSantis in March, public school teachers have been banned from discussing sexual orientation and gender in the classroom unless it is deemed “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate.” One school district reportedly warned teachers not to wear rainbow-colored clothing.
While multiple civil rights groups have filed lawsuits to block the law, legislators in the Buckeye State have introduced copycat bills to replicate these right-wing restrictions in Ohio. House Bill 616, for example, discourages “divisive” conversations about racism, white supremacy, and LGBTQ issues. As homophobic and transphobic rhetoric becomes more common among Republican officials—and attempted attacks by groups like Patriot Front increase—House Bill 454 would also prohibit gender-affirming medical care for transgender teens.
Unsurprisingly, these bills have horrified many in the state—particularly young people and marginalized groups who would be affected by the proposed legislation. In early July, local chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America, the Central Ohio Revolutionary Socialists, and the Cincinnati Socialists held a protest of around 100 people outside the Ohio Statehouse.
One attendee, Emily, cited the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the rollback of abortion rights as her main reason for attending. In addition to the Supreme Court’s decision in June, legislation like HB 616 would make matters significantly worse in Ohio, according to Emily. “Teaching kids about sexual orientation and safe sex helps reduce the amount of unwanted pregnancies.”
In her view, the United States is now in danger of becoming a “Christian dictatorship,” and she didn’t feel like the Democratic Party was doing everything in its power to stop it. After the Supreme Court’s ruling, President Biden called on Congress to codify abortion rights, but failed to offer a comprehensive response himself. Emily called the executive order that Biden issued two weeks after the Dobbs v. Jackson decision “mostly for show.”
“How is this fair?” Maddie Smith, another attendee of the rally, found herself asking when the Dobbs decision was leaked. Smith said she has been speaking out against it ever since. But the collective outrage from grassroots organizations can rarely compete with the interest groups that have lurched our country rightward.
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As people chanted into megaphones, those who are responsible for decisions like Dobbs sat in a nondescript office building overlooking the Ohio Statehouse. The Center for Christian Virtue, the religious right’s largest public policy organization in Ohio, had lobbied for nearly every bill that was now being protested below.
According to its website, the Center for Christian Virtue was founded in 1983 to “address the pornography problem in Greater Cincinnati.” Initially called Citizens for Community Values, the organization was designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The organization’s associations with Ohio politicians are well documented, with the group spending thousands on event advertising, sponsorship, and tickets for Attorney General David Yost, Governor Dewine, and other Republican leaders in the state over the past few years.
In June, Yost filed a motion to dissolve an injunction against Ohio’s Heartbeat Bill—first signed into law by Governor Dewin in 2019—that would prohibit abortion after six weeks. The Center for Christian Virtue said it was grateful for the attorney general’s “quick & incredible response to the abortion industry’s desperate attempt to create a right to abortion out of thin air.”
In a letter from February 2021, the president of the Center for Christian Virtue, Aaron Baer, called on members of the general assembly to oppose the Ohio Fairness Act, which would criminalize discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In the letter, Baer claimed that “systemic discrimination of an invidious nature has not been documented to exist in Ohio.” But, in the same letter, Baer expressed the kind of transphobia he claims doesn’t exist, saying that gender nondiscrimination laws would force businesses and public institutions to inflict “long-lasting trauma” by allowing “biological males to access women’s showers, locker rooms, and restrooms.”
The relationship between the Center for Christian Virtue and its legislative allies goes beyond sending letters and donations. In an e-mail from May 2021 obtained by The Nation through a FOIA request, Ohio State Representative Sarah Fowler Arthur, a sponsor of a bill that would prohibit “the teaching of divisive concepts,” asked a lobbyist at the center to review the legislation before it was public. “If you’ve got time to look at this draft I’d be interested in your feedback.” Fowler Arthur would introduce the bill a few weeks later. While advocating for the bill in a March interview, Fowler Arthur said that teachers should be required to show the perspective of “German soldiers” when talking about the Holocaust. Fowler Arthur did not respond to a request for comment from The Nation regarding what kind of feedback on the bill she was expecting from the Center for Christian Virtue.
According to e-mails obtained through a FOIA request, the Center for Christian Virtue’s legislative liaison had also described House Bill 454 as “an important piece of legislation CCV plans to introduce soon.” The bill would severely restrict gender-affirming care for trans youth, with doctors at many of Ohio’s children’s hospitals calling it a clear example of government overreach and a danger to adolescents’ mental health. Before the legislation was introduced, the Center for Christian Virtue corresponded with the staff of State Representative Jennifer Gross, promising to relay information related to the planning of the bill. Gross’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Those protesting these bills—who lack the resources and connections possessed by the groups working behind the scenes—are often ignored by lawmakers. Erin Woods, a participant in the early July protests, chained herself to a railing at the west end of the Ohio Statehouse to bring more attention to the issue. She was arrested and charged with trespassing. “I’ve chained myself to the statehouse to protest the violation of human rights of women—of everybody,” said Woods from the steps of the capitol before state troopers took her away in handcuffs. “We will not go back.”