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Ohio's Amish County Reacts To Marriage Ruling By Supreme Court

M.L. Schultze
In largely rural, heavily Amish Holmes County, the amendment banning same-sex marriage passed by one of the widest margins in the state.

Back in 2004, a majority of voters in all but one county in Ohio passed a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. But some were far more adamant than others. In largely rural, heavily Amish Holmes County, the amendment passed by better than three-to-one, which was one of the widest margins in the state. Some weren't happy with last week's ruling by the Supreme Court allowing same-sex marriage. 

Heading into Millersburg, you come across bicycle, hand-made furniture and harness shops; hay stacked by hand, not baled by machine and, occasionally, a exclamation-filled warning, like the billboard that reads: 

“Flee from the wrath to come. Turn to God!” 

Religion is not an add-on here. More than 40 percent of Holmes County’s roughly 42,000 people are Amish – or Anabaptists. It’s the largest concentration in a single county in the U.S. And Holmes has lots of nondenominational congregations as well.  When it comes to social issues, it leans fervently, religiously conservative. 

But even here, the Supreme Court decision changed things. Probate Court Administrator Glennis Menuez says that started with practical anticipation. 

“We had previously changed all of our forms and our software was adjusted to accommodate, you know, not bride and groom. It’s just Applicant 1 and Applicant 2,” Menuez said.

Credit M.L. Schultze / WKSU
The probate court in Holmes County has been preparing for the Supreme Court's ruling.

So on Friday afternoon, when two women seeking a marriage license showed up at the doors of the courthouse on the center square of Millersburg since 1876, the earth didn’t shake.

“We don’t actually do the weddings here. We just issue the license," Menuez said. "But the couple when they were here getting their license seemed excited and were kind of surprised they were the first couple to come in and they were kind of excited about that.”

The Millersburg Hotel is even older than the courthouse, and stands a block away. Bill Robinson and his wife bought it in 2002, and moved down from Cleveland. The three-story brick building with its cozy parlor, tall windows and intricate cornice is even older than the courthouse – and is likely the third oldest operating hotel in Ohio. These days, as much as 8 percent of its guests are international – drawn like their domestic counterparts, to try to understand Amish culture. 

Robinson says the Supreme Court decision is a non-issue for him. 
“We welcome everybody," Robinson said. "I haven’t heard of any comments plus or minus. I just haven’t heard anybody talking about it."

But in between the hotel and the courthouse, as heavy flatbeds rumble by with massive loads of raw timber, others are talking about it. Kary Jamison is worried. 

Credit M.L. Schultze / WKSU
James Bishop doesn't agree with the Supreme Court ruling.

“The Bible tells us that marriage is for a man and a woman and that doesn’t mean that I hate people who are homosexual. I have a love for them. I want them to come to know the Savior that I know. But when you go against what God sets down as what should be, then our country is heading in the wrong direction,” Jamison said.
And further down the block, James Bishop also grounds his opposition in the Bible. 

“You know Ohio voted strongly against it. So it shouldn’t be allowed in Ohio then," Bishop said. "It ain’t right. The Lord didn’t make man and man. He made man and woman.” 

About a mile south of the square is a coffee shop called Jitters. Its cases are loaded with cupcakes and creamsticks and customers seem about evenly split between the coffee and the smoothies. Kendra Eicher is one of those working the busy counter. She’s barely in her 20s – a demographic that polls say is largely accepting of gay marriage. 

She is not. 

“Because in the Bible it clearly states that’s wrong. I guess I was more like, it saddened me, it really did,” Eicher said. 

Credit M.L. Schultze / WKSU
Eileen Gress is celebrating the Supreme Court decision allowing same-sex marriage nationwide.

Her next customer is Eileen Gress. Her short spiky hair is swept to the side; her wide smile doesn’t waver as she listens. Then she speaks up, describing herself as “a queer person” who is celebrating the Supreme Court decision. 

“And there have been a lot of strong reactions in my family as well. Most of them don’t agree with my viewpoint and they’re fairly conservative," she said. "But my view on it is that extending rights to other people doesn’t take rights away from others. So now that everybody has marriage equality we can actually tackle things like homelessness and tax issues and things like that and and maybe just general acceptance for people.” 

Gress actually describes herself as pansexual – rejecting the idea that there are only two sexes. She says explaining that isn’t always easy in any part of Ohio.

“It’s one of those things where I just have to pick my battles. If I think that somebody maybe has incorrect facts that are leading to their decision, it might be easier to convince them than if they’re going on a moral standpoint or a Christian standpoint. They tend to be more solid in their beliefs," Gress said.

But as solid as Holmes County is in its beliefs, it also, she says, is changing.