Holocaust memorial wins approval to be built on Ohio Statehouse grounds despite legal concerns

A privately-funded Holocaust memorial is to be built on the grounds of the Ohio Statehouse despite concerns from the head of an oversight board that the project is "inappropriate" for public property and could ensnare Ohio in a separation-of-church-and-state dispute.

The $1.8 million memorial was approved Thursday by the state Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board, which oversees and maintains the Ohio Statehouse. It's believed to be the first Holocaust memorial planned for the grounds of any U.S. statehouse. The state is to pay for site preparations.

But board Chairman Richard Finan voted against the memorial, saying the state could get sued for violating the separation of church and state. "I think it's just inappropriate."

He said he would have been fine with "a reasonable memorial, something smaller" on the grounds. "But this is just too much to the Jewish religion," Finan said.

A couple of people at the meeting also voiced objections to the memorial, with one saying it was a religious symbol that shouldn't be at the Statehouse. Jewish groups praised approval of the project.

At a ceremony two years ago, Gov. John Kasich proposed building a memorial that he said could teach people about man's inhumanity to man. A timeline for construction hasn't been set yet.

New York artist Daniel Libeskind, the son of Holocaust survivors, designed the memorial. His plan features a split limestone path toward two, upright panels. Cutouts on the panels are positioned to reveal a broken, six-pointed Star of David. An account from an Auschwitz death camp survivor would be embossed on the panels, and a stone wall that sits along the path would have an engraved quote honoring the death camp liberators: "If you save one life, it is as if you saved the world."

Joyce Garver Keller, executive director of the Ohio Jewish Communities, said she didn't think the depiction of the Star of David promotes any religion. She said it's appropriate for the memorial to be placed near a government institution.

"The Holocaust did not begin in the camps," Keller said. "It did not begin with smokestacks and ovens. It began in the halls of government where legislation was passed that allowed the expulsion of Jews and others who the Nazis didn't support and the murder of millions of people."

Finan, a former Republican president of the Ohio Senate, helped guide the restoration of the Civil War-era Statehouse in the 1990s. He has been the only oversight board chairman since the panel's creation, but submitted his resignation last week, effective in October.

Asked Thursday whether the memorial played a role, he told reporters: "It played a role. But a lot of things played a role."

He said the oversight panel's function as a buffer between the General Assembly and the Statehouse has been eroding.