By Eli Johnson
With weddings, it’s all about the flowers, the seating arrangements, the rings, the music, the menu. With weddings, it’s all about the details.
And before anyone gets to the boutonnieres or the bubbly, it’s all about the perfect location. The beach? A garden? An elegant indoor venue?
For gay and lesbian couples hoping to hold wedding ceremonies surrounded by the limestone columns and marble staircases of the Ohio Statehouse, though, it’s a grand location that’s totally off-limits.
The self-proclaimed “People’s House,” a public, taxpayer-owned and -operated building that hosted 23 weddings last year, doesn’t allow same-sex couples to rent its atrium, rotunda, plaza or porches as a venue.
In keeping with the constricting tone of Ohio’s 2004 constitutional amendment that bans marriage, civil unions or any other type of government recognition for gay and lesbian couples, the building’s overseer has a policy that requires couples to obtain a marriage license in the state before renting out space and services. It’s a license that same-sex couples obviously can’t obtain, and out-of-state licenses from marriage-equality states or any other won’t do.
“We do not have a position on the act [of same-sex marriage], but someone has to have a marriage license to be married at the Statehouse, so we follow that policy,” said Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board spokesman Luke Stedke. “Anything we do has to follow the Ohio Constitution.”
The board is a 50-employee state agency and a 12-member appointed panel that sets policy on public use of the Statehouse and its grounds. The wedding policy also requires an Ohio marriage license just to hold a reception in the building. Couples must submit a copy of their lic
ense at least two days before their wedding or reception.
Spokesman Mike Rupert said the policy wasn’t put in place to deny lesbian and gay couples access to Statehouse celebrations. It was adopted in 2006, a year before the building was opened up for weddings and receptions.
“The board decided that the Ohio Statehouse is for citizens of Ohio,” he said.
Allowing ceremonies and receptions only for those who obtain marriage licenses in Ohio, though, means the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board is denying access to two groups of Ohio citizens: gays and lesbians whose out-of-state marriages aren’t recognized here, as well as straight couples whose marriages are valid in Ohio no matter where the license is obtained.
It’s a policy that seems unmatched among neighboring states that open up their capitol buildings to weddings and receptions.
Statehouse representatives in Pennsylvania and West Virginia told Outlook that they don’t ask to see couples’ marriage licenses and that policies don’t exclude gay and lesbian couples. Rules posted online for Indiana and Michigan don’t mention any license requirements, either.
LGBT leaders and allies in Ohio criticized the Statehouse policy.
“The Statehouse is the last place where anyone should be denied their civil rights,” said Ian James, co-founder of Freedom Ohio, which is collecting signatures for a statewide vote on marriage equality. “For generations, the Statehouse has stood as the People’s House, where all must be provided equal access.”
State Rep. Michael Stinziano, a Columbus Democrat whose district includes the Statehouse grounds, said he wasn’t aware of the Statehouse policy and sees no reason why it should exist.
“It’s the People’s House. Anything that discriminates like that is a shame,” he said. “Now that I’m aware of it, it’s something I’m committed to changing.”
Equality Ohio, the statewide LGBT-rights organization, said it was researching the issue but declined to comment for this story.
They take that “People’s House” thing seriously at the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board. The Statehouse website uses the term 240 times.
The board’s annual budget to keep the Statehouse running is more than $7.7 million, and weddings help offset some of that cost. Couples pay $3,500 to have a wedding in the building and $8,000 for a ceremony and reception.
Ohio Department of Natural Resources spokesman Matt Eiselstein said his agency doesn’t require couples to show marriage licenses in order to have wedding ceremonies and receptions at state parks, and the agency doesn’t turn away same-sex couples who want to have weddings or receptions at its properties.
The Columbus Department of Recreation and Parks welcomes all couples at popular wedding locations such as the Goodale Park gazebo, Topiary Garden, the Park of Roses at Whetstone Park, and North Bank Park’s glass pavilion.
“A wedding is a wedding. It’s just not a question we ask,” said Terri Leist, assistant director of the department. “As long as someone pays the fee and fills out the [rental] paperwork, they can get married.”
This story appears in the February issue of Outlook, which is available at newsstands, restaurants, bars, clubs, retail shops and other locations throughout Columbus and Cleveland.