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Ohio Church Leaders Suppport Restrictive Payday Loan Legislation

Church leaders in Ohio have joined the list of people trying to help pass a bill that would more closely regulate payday lending. House bill 333 would cap loans at 36 percent - down from the current annual percentage rate of 391 percent.

The legislation, sponsored by Republican Bill Batchelder of Medina and Democrat Bob Hagen of Youngstown, has only had one hearing and is now described by supporters as "languishing."

Church leaders have taken that as a call to action. One member of the Ohio Coalition for Responsible Lending calls payday loans "immoral." Another, Bishop Bruce Ough of the United Methodist Church says they go against Biblical principals.

"Payday lending is simply not a fair and just way to do business," Ough says. "It's financially and morally irresponsible and clearly violates the basic teaching of Jesus: To love our neighbor."

Bishop Ough is one of a cross section of religious leaders who are pushing for the bill's revival. Others include Rabbi Susan Stone who helps run the Hebrew Free Loan Association in Cleveland. She says her organization has at times been inundated with around 500 calls for help.

"The stories are absolutely heart-wrenching and horrible and people don't know what they're getting into until they're drowning," Stone says.

Lisa Ferguson, communications director for Dublin based payday lender Check Smart defends her industry. She says her company always encourages borrowers to understand the terms of their loan.

"We strive to give our customers information on borrowing responsibly," she says.

Ferguson says payday lenders are a valuable service that she says the overwhelming majority of her customers appreciate.

For a fee of $15 for every $100 borrowed, she says a customer can pay the rent or stop overdraft fees.

"If someone were to bounce a check, you can be charged $54 on a non-sufficient funds fee," Ferguson says. "So a lot of our customers will opt to use a payday loan which is a $15 fee."

Ferguson ads, "I certainly don't believe that religion has a place in this discussion of payday lending."

The religious leaders disagree. They point to statistics that say about half a million Ohioans get payday loans every year. 300,000 of those people, the group says, are caught in what they call a "debt trap."

Bishop Elizabeth Eaton of the Evangelical Lutheran Church says that in Ohio, 'it's expensive to be poor.' United Methodist Bishop John Hopkins says payday loans drive people further into poverty, leading to a greater demand for public assistance. Dan Franz, a pastor at the Vineyard Church in Columbus calls the loans "exploitative and opportunistic." He would like to see Ohio follow the model that the federal government put in place last October.

"The fact that the Pentagon and Congress have imposed a 36 percent cap for military families is a good example of what we would ask the legislature in Ohio to follow.

Check Smart's Lisa Ferguson says that would shut payday lenders down and put thousands of the stores' employees out of work.