After antisemitic Zoombombing of religious services, Ohio toughens laws

Following advocacy by Jewish groups, convictions could now bring jail time; synagogue services targeted after they went online during COVID-19 pandemic

A family takes part in a Zoom shiva. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis/Getty Images via JTA)
A family takes part in a Zoom shiva. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis/Getty Images via JTA)

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 last week 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 made the discovery while seeking legal action against abortion rights activists who have targeted anti-abortion clinics since the US 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.

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-19 pandemic.

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 zoom bombing. And they like what’s that? I was like, Well, let me tell you, it’s happening a lot to our community.’”

The Ohio legislature last week 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.

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