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    Posted August 29, 2014 by
    Columbus, Ohio

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    Ohio Billboard Stirs Marriage Debate


    CNN PRODUCER NOTE     CNN reached out to American Outdoor Advertising, which confirmed it owns the billboard but would not comment on whether the message represented its company or was purchased by an outside client. "There is a billboard that American Outdoor owns that advertises holy matrimony. We are a billboard company that sells advertising space on our billboards,” said a spokesman.

    Get Equal Ohio co-founder Tom Morgan and his partner of 16 years, Brad Wees, took these photos protesting beneath the billboard in Columbus, Ohio, on August 28, the day they saw the sign go up. Morgan said he is leading more protests against the billboard this week.
    - zdan, CNN iReport producer

    A new billboard went up along Olentangy River Road in Columbus, Ohio on Thursday that has many local citizens upset. The billboard, owned by American Outdoor Advertising, states that “Holy Matrimony is one man and one woman.” This statement strikes a deep nerve in the city that overwhelmingly supports diversity, especially regarding the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. The billboard was erected as the citizens of the state are awaiting an appeals ruling from the US Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit regarding the state’s current same-gender marriage ban. This billboard clearly targets the LGBT community with a message that tries to undermine marriage equality.

    Local activist and co-founder of Get Equal Ohio Tom Morgan has started a Facebook group encouraging citizens to show their dislike of this message. The page ‘REACT!!!! Anti-Marriage Equality Billboard’ quickly grew to over 230 Facebook members in its first 24 hours. Morgan said a friend called him when the billboard was being installed on Thursday. Morgan raced to the billboard to get pictures. “This is not OK” Morgan said on Friday, “Columbus is a gay friendly town; we are of the attitude that this kind of discrimination is disgusting.” That sentiment is clear when reading the comments on the group’s timeline and on the pictures posted of the billboard. Because the billboard uses the word matrimony in place of marriage Morgan called the billboard’s wording “slick”, but “obviously anti-LGBT.”

    Morgan’s initial reaction was to make the Facebook page to create awareness of the billboard and to collect pictures of people’s disapproval of it, similar to the pictures taken of same-gender couples embracing or kissing in front of Chick-fil-a when that controversy broke in 2012. That would have been a quiet protest, but Morgan wanted something a little louder. Currently, the group is planning a protest and photo shoot at the billboard location this weekend. When asked why he wanted to do something about the billboard, Morgan said “It says what you do is incorrect, and we’re sick of hearing that.” He said this type of message directly impacts how LGBT people, especially youth, see themselves and that could lead to low self esteem and suicide.

    Chris Neary, founder of American Outdoor Advertising, had a lot less to say about the message. In a telephone interview on Friday, Neary refused questions and said he would only speak to me if I had a question about advertising. He would not confirm if the message was sponsored by his company or if the message was a paid rental. Neary, the owner of at least two other now defunct advertising companies, seemed to only have one thing to say in defense of this billboard. He repeatedly stated that he is “in the business of renting billboards”, then abruptly hung up.

    I reached out to a few of Ohio’s leading pro-LGBT organizations. Unfortunately,  Equality Ohio did not return phone calls left at their main office in Columbus. The co-founder of Freedom to Marry Ohio, Ian James, did respond and said he is hoping to raise money to purchase a few pro-LGBT billboards around Columbus that would spread a message of support for “civil marriage equality while also being supportive of religious freedoms.”

    Marriage equality in Ohio has been a hotly debated topic since the same-gender marriage ban went into effect in 2004. Equality Ohio recently started a statewide campaign called Why Marriage Matters Ohio in hopes to bring marriage equality to the state before 2016. Freedom to Marry Ohio has been active since 2012 collecting signatures to get the issue back on the ballot in 2015 or 2016. According to Why Marriage Matters, the latest independent polling shows an even split in the state with 47% of people for marriage equality and 47% against. Some of Freedom to Marry’s polling puts the number of supporters closer to 56% statewide. With cases from Ohio awaiting decisions in the federal appeals court and cases from other states knocking on the door to the US Supreme Court, we are sure to have an answer to this sooner than later.

    Before it’s all said and done, we are sure to see continued flare-ups and controversy. Even Morgan is in awe sometimes. He stated that “it boggles the mind how much blood, sweat, tears, and money is going into this” considering that the LGBT community is vastly outnumbered by its straight counterparts. The courts have been overwhelmingly siding with members of the LGBT community in regards to ruling in favor of marriage equality and the overall support of the general public keeps reaching new heights in polls across the nation. Although the hands of justice are tipping the scales towards equality, billboards such as the one in Columbus remind everyone that there are still people who refuse to accept change.

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