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3News Investigates: Ohio responds to Zoom bombings

Proponents hail enhanced penalties for targeting religious ceremonies, funerals to curb disturbances.

CLEVELAND — The intruder emerged from cyberspace just as mourners were gathered graveside and others watched on Zoom.

"Don’t let people die,” a voice is heard. Racial slurs and pornographic images followed as a funeral director quickly pulled the plug on the Zoom app.

The Cleveland-area funeral came during the pandemic, a time when Zoom emerged as a popular online meeting platform.

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Funeral directors found it a useful tool for friends and families unable to attend the service.

The technology gave the world a new way to connect. It also gave unscrupulous types another way to troll, be it business meetings, family gatherings, or more prominently, religious ceremonies.

The internet phenomenon laid the ground work for a new word: Zoom bombing.

As lawmakers are prone to do, new or tougher laws are being implemented to dissuade unwanted interruptions. Ohio is one such state, which has now raised the penalty for Zoom-bombing religious services.

The law now makes disruptive behavior a first-degree misdemeanor, which carries a potential 6-month jail sentence and a $1,000 fine.

“I think it's a long time coming,” said Lindsey Cannon, co-owner of Cannon-Catavolos Funeral Home in Parma Heights.

The new law – dubbed the “Sacred Spaces Act—targets offenders for disturbing or interfering with a religious gathering, be it church services, funerals or any other religious service.

Cannon said Zoom bombings and other intrusions of religious gatherings are increasing vulnerable.

One intruder can cast a pall over an already difficult scene, she said.

“You have one time to make sure everything goes right during a funeral. There's no redos. We've seen people protesting during various funeral services, whether the person would be LGBTQ or if say they passed away in the service," Cannon added.

Many times, the Zoom bombing targets are of the Jewish faith. Antisemitic attacks are increasingly common.

Howie Beigelman, executive director of the Ohio Jewish Communities, says when he learned of the bill’s inception – he and other Jewish members quickly realized the bill couldn’t be vague, or weak.

“Gone are the days of security, of having anything where people have class,” he said.

Despite the unwanted attacks, law enforcement appeared to struggle with how to approach offenders.

“One other option we were hearing sometimes from law enforcement and prosecutors was, you know, this is terrible, but there's not much we could do about it. This really just increases it to make it something that that's much more punishable. So this is good.”

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