Statehouse Holocaust Memorial Causes Protest - NBC4: Columbus, Ohio News, Weather, and Sports (WCMH-TV)

Statehouse Holocaust Memorial Causes Protest

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A legal battle is brewing on the Ohio Statehouse lawn over the separation of church and state.

A Holocaust Memorial has been approved by the Capital Square Review and Advisory Board.

$1.8 million in private funds have been raised and artist Daniel Libeskind's design has been approved. But, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) is objecting to what they call an overtly religious symbol, the Star of David, prominent in the design, on state property.

The Ohio Jewish Communities raised the funds for the memorial. The Executive Director Joyce Garver Keller said she has been asked if a memorial to the holocaust belongs on the Statehouse lawn? Wouldn't it be more appropriate at a synagogue?

"The Holocaust did not start in concentration camps. It did not begin with the ovens and smokestacks. It began in the halls of government, with laws being passed by a democratically-elected government that took away rights of Jews and others, and eventually let to the holocaust," she said.

The FFRF points out that there were at least five million non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust, including gays, Jehovah Witnesses, Roma Gypsies, the disabled and many others who are excluded by use of the symbol.

Garver Keller said the language on the wall is meant for everyone -- not just Jews.

"The idea behind the memorial is to remind people who come to the Statehouse that we need to stand up and give voice to those who do not have a voice," Garver Keller said.

The FFRF sent a letter on June 14, 2013 to Richard Finan who was then Chair of Capital Advisory Board. It stated that the Star of David represents Judaism as the cross does for Christianity. Its prominent inclusion in the memorial gives the impression of an endorsement of Judaism.

Could building a memorial with a religious symbol on state property create issues for the State of Ohio?

"I think it opens up a pandora's box for the State of Ohio," said David Goldberger, The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law Professor Emeritus.

He said the Freedom Foundation's argument of a religious message with the Star of David could leave the state open to other challenges.

"It opens the door for other groups to say, 'We would like our symbol there.' Of course this memorial will be part of a broader display, so it is essentially secular," Goldberger said.

He said the state motto on the sidewalk in front of the Statehouse "In God All Things Are Possible" went through the courts and was ruled secular.  Goldberger said the Holocaust Memorial could be ruled the same.

"The fact it maybe a poor policy judgement on the part of the governor and the people that are supporting this particular display, does not mean it is unlawful," he said.

Governor John Kasich's decision to put a memorial in the Statehouse was unprecedented. He made the announcement on May 4, 2011 after hearing a speech from a death-camp survivor. It is to be the first Holocaust Memorial at a Statehouse in the country.

Goldberger said the state could end up defending itself in state courts over cases like this.

"I expect there is going to be litigation over other displays if not this one and it will be expensive for the state," Goldberger said.

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