If a State’s Holocaust Memorial Includes a Jewish Star, Does It Violate Church/State Separation?

Daniel Libeskind is the son of Holocaust survivors and he was thrilled to be selected as a finalist to construct a Holocaust memorial that would be displayed on the grounds of the Ohio Statehouse. His eventual submission featured the story of an Auschwitz survivor told on two giant tablets… with a Star of David in the negative space between them:

Proposed Holocaust Memorial (via Daniel Libeskind)

The monument would mostly be paid for with private donations (worth approximately $2,000,000) but the state would kick in about $300,000 for the preparation of the site.

This whole thing raised a very interesting question: Why did Ohio need a Holocaust memorial?

Indeed, Republican State Senator Richard Finan opposed it because he said it just wasn’t necessary. In fact, he basically argued that the memorial was approved because no one wanted to be labeled as anti-Semitic or against the Holocaust. But his concerns were primarily economic (why is the state paying for this at all?) and traditional (no other state had a Holocaust memorial like this and Ohio’s grounds honored war heroes):

“A Holocaust memorial does not fit with the historical markers of the State house… Our statues are all about Ohio’s civil war generals… I do not think a statue or monument to the Holocaust belongs in the Statehouse. There are other more viable places it could be put.

That last sentence is very relevant — this memorial could easily go up in so many other privately-owned places in the city. So why must it go up on government grounds?

Meanwhile, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has a very different concern: Is this memorial Constitutional?

The corollary to that, of course, is: How do you oppose a memorial like this without coming off as disrespectful?

Last month, they wrote a letter to Finan, who was also chair of the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board, urging him to put a stop to the memorial (PDF). They did their best to walk a line of respect:

Even if the symbol is viewed in the context of a memorial honoring victims of an atrocious genocide, it ignores the fact that there were other victims of the Holocaust. Thus, it gives the impression that only the Jewish victims of the Holocaust are being honored by the stateThere were five million non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma Gypsies, resisters to the Nazi regime, Catholic priests and Christian pastors, homosexuals, the disabled, and Africans who were brought to Germany following World War I. If the memorial included only a pink triangle, it would appear to honor homosexual victims of the Holocaust above all others. Similarly, including the Star of David so prominently in the planned Memorial is exclusionary, ignoring the sacrifices made by the many other groups targeted by the Nazis during World War II. A reasonable observer could conclude that the government only cares about the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, not Christian, nonreligious, or other non-Jewish victims.

FFRF would like to emphasize that we have no objection to the State hosting a memorial to honor victims of the Holocaust and Ohioan veterans who helped liberate Nazi concentration camps. FFRF’s own membership includes veterans of World War II and Holocaust survivors. Our contention is that memorials designated by state governments, particularly anything displayed at the seat of state government, should remain free from sectarian religious imagery.

(***Edit***: Yad Vashem, the “world center for Holocaust research,” doesn’t have precise numbers but their estimate of non-Jewish victims is significantly smaller than the 5,000,000 cited by FFRF.)

Indeed, the two runners-up, Jaume Plensa and Ann Hamilton, created memorials that didn’t include a Jewish symbol but honored victims nonetheless:

Jaume Plensa’s submitted design (Neal C. Lauron – Columbus Dispatch)

Ann Hamilton’s submitted design (Neal C. Lauron – Columbus Dispatch)

Today, over FFRF’s objections and Finan’s opposition, the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Committee approved Libeskind’s design (the one with the Star of David). Finan was the sole dissenter in an 8-1 vote, and he announced his resignation from the board.

This is one of those battles that atheists have be very careful about fighting. It’s like American Atheists going after the cross in the 9/11 Memorial — their fight wasn’t anti-Christian or anti-remembering-9/11. It was purely against the idea of a government memorial treating a Christian symbol as more important than symbols of non-Christians. (We can discuss the merits of that case, but that was their argument.)

I agree with FFRF here in principle but the execution has to be done very carefully. Even when the memorial honors something well worth remembering, legislators must respect the law in the process. That’s all FFRF is asking for. The precedent such a memorial would set would be equally disturbing, possibly leading to more religious memorials in other states — does anyone think Bible Belt legislators wouldn’t try to erect Christian memorials in their own states after seeing how this played out?

Now that the memorial is going to go up, a lawsuit could be forthcoming. FFRF wouldn’t be wrong to file one, even if the press pilloried them for it.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.