Plans for a Holocaust memorial at the Ohio Statehouse have stirred a debate over the separation of church and state that may lead to a lawsuit because a focal point of renowned architect Daniel Libeskind's design is the Star of David.
Plans for the memorial in in Columbus, Ohio, by Libeskind, the son of Holocaust survivors and the master architect behind the reconstruction of the World Trade Center, feature two walkways leading to a set of 18-foot panels that meet and form a cutout in the shape of the six-point star, a symbol closely associated with Judaism.
"Since the Star of David is a religious symbol and a secular government is not supposed to be promoting religion, especially when there are other perfectly secular alternatives, we're objecting to that religious symbol," said Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis.
Barker said his organization, made up of 19,000 atheists, agnostics and skeptics, takes issue not with the memorial itself, but with its use of the star. After receiving complaints about the proposed plans from some of his members last month, Barker wrote to the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board, which maintains the Statehouse, and requested that the memorial feature something other than the star.
"It shouldn't single out just one group of people who was harmed during that tragedy," said Barker. The Nazi genocide claimed an estimated 6 million Jews, plus millions more Soviets, Poles, Slavs and homosexuals.
But the board approved the design in a vote of 8-1 on Thursday, moving the plans forward.
Richard H. Finan, a former state senator and the chairman of the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board, cast the lone vote against the design. Star or not, he has long objected to the memorial itself, arguing that it doesn't fit the Civil War era themes of the Statehouse.
Months ago, Finan predicted to the Columbus Dispatch that the plan may expose the state to legal troubles.
"You have the establishment of a memorial that has a Star of David in the middle of the Statehouse. I think there's going to be a problem," Finan told The Huffington Post.
Steve Freeman, director of legal affairs at the Anti-Defamation League, argued that objections to use of the star are unfounded.
"Jews were forced to wear the star during the Holocaust," Freeman said. "There's no denying the Holocaust was an attempt at genocide of the Jewish people. Certainly the Star of David is a religious symbol, but in this context, the reason they might be using it is not to endorse or promote Judaism."
Julie Henahan, director of the Ohio Arts Council, noted that the selection of Libeskind's design was a thorough and deliberative process.
"We're really thrilled to have a world-class architect like Daniel Libeskind on this project and we're very pleased the language is inclusive," said Henahan. "I think it was a tight procedure."
The wording on the memorial is set to say, "In remembrance of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust and millions more including prisoners of war, ethnic and religious minorities, homosexuals, the mentally ill, the disabled, and political dissidents who suffered under Nazi Germany."
But for Annie Laurie Gaylor, also a co-president of the Freedom From Religion group, the star nevertheless presents a problem. She said she isn't yet sure how the organization will proceed, but a lawsuit is not out of the question.
Heather Weaver, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union program on freedom of religion and beliefs, said her organization won't rule out a future lawsuit.
"Whenever the government displays religious symbols, it raises concerns," Weaver said. "In this particular case, based on what we know right now, we are not planing a lawsuit. That could change in the future. ... We want to keep our options open because this area of law is very dependent upon the context."