COLUMBUS: A Pastor Protection Act that supporters say protects religious freedom — but critics call unnecessary and discriminatory against gay couples — passed the Ohio House on Wednesday.

The bill says that no licensed minister or religious society can be forced to perform or host a marriage ceremony that does not conform to their sincerely held religious beliefs while protecting them from lawsuits.

Rep. Nino Vitale, R-Urbana, said House Bill 36 is aimed at addressing the tension between the U.S. Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision and the catechism of faith communities.

“Do we want Ohio to be a state that imposes something on pastors that is against their deeply held religious beliefs?” he said.

“This is not a sword. This bill is intended to be a shield to protect everyone’s rights,” he said. “Are we going to allow groups to sue each other and use the heavy hand of the courts?”

Clergy already have constitutional protections and can choose to not marry someone if it doesn’t conform with their faith, said Alana Jochum, executive director of Equality Ohio, an LGBT advocacy group. The problem with the bill, she said, is it goes further by including “religious societies,” meaning, for example, a couple could be blocked from accessing a Knights of Columbus hall for a wedding reception.

The bill passed 59-29 over objections from most Democrats.

Pastors should have the right to not perform a marriage based on religious beliefs, but organizations that rent to the public should not be allowed to deny access to the LGBT community, said Rep. Janine Boyd, D-Cleveland Heights.

“Do not legalize turning more people away,” she said shortly before the vote.

Dozens of pastors, many from Baptist churches, had given testimony in favor of the bill. However, according to accounts by Gongwer News Service, none offered a first-person experience of being sued for failing to perform a gay marriage, though they said the bill eases concern about future lawsuits.

Rep. Mike Duffey of Worthington was among a few Republicans to vote against the bill.

“Our religious freedom is already fully protected in every way proposed, so let’s not send a signal to our talented LGBT Ohioans that they are unwelcome,” he wrote in a tweet. “Ohio is open for business.”

House Bill 36 now goes to the Senate. Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, didn’t say the bill was a priority, but said it likely would not have trouble passing his chamber.

Sexting bill passes

Not wanting to hammer all teens with harsh penalties when they are caught sending nude photographs, the House voted unanimously Wednesday to support a lesser penalty for young first-time offenders.

Judges say they have struggled to handle cases of teenagers involved in sexting, where they share sexually explicit photographs, often via their phones. Distributing such material involving minors can easily rise to the level of felony pandering obscenity charges if prosecutors push to try them as adults.

The bill passed as part of a marathon final House session before lawmakers head home for a summer break. Other approved bills include those related to revenge porn and teenage marriage.

Rep. Brian Hill, R-Zanesville, said his bill offers offenders age 18 or younger a second chance when they make a bad choice and are caught receiving or distributing nude pictures by allowing for a diversion program. This can apply if the victim is older than 13 and is less than four years younger than the offender. Teens who complete the diversion program can have their charges dismissed.

In other activity:

• The House unanimously approved a “revenge porn” bill, creating an ability to sue and criminal penalties when someone distributes private, sexual images or video without the other participant’s consent. House Bill 497 now goes to the Senate.

• The House unanimously passed a bill prohibiting a person, in most cases, to get married in Ohio before the age of 18. About 5,000 Ohio minors were married between 2010 and 2015, the vast majority of them girls.

Rep. Laura Lanese, R-Grove City, called Ohio’s current marriage law a complicated web that, in one case, led to a 14-year-old girl marrying a 38-year-old man. The potential for abuse, human trafficking, poverty and divorce are far higher when a person marries before age 18, she said.

House Bill 511, which now goes to the Senate, allows a 17-year-old to marry if he or she gets consent from a juvenile court and the partner is not more than four years older.