Saturday, July 19, 2003

Maui church is
allowed to keep case
in federal court

A Maui church's claim that its religious freedom was violated when the Maui Planning Commission twice denied its application to build a chapel will continue to be a federal case.

U.S. District Judge Samuel King denied yesterday a Maui County motion to dismiss the suit brought by Hale O Kaula church and leave the matter for the state court to decide.

Church elder David Jenkins was elated with the decision, saying sidetracking the case to Circuit Court would prolong the two-year court battle, which has already cost the 60-member church hundreds of thousands of dollars.

King rejected the argument by county attorneys that the emphasis should be on the land-use appeals process rather than compliance with the federal Religious Land Use and Incarcerated Persons Act. He said he would not follow the course of a California federal judge who recently declared the 2000 statute unconstitutional.

"There seems to be some resistance to this statute," commented King, pointing out that the bill was passed unanimously by the U.S. Senate. "Congress has a duty to interpret the Constitution. It's tempting to say something is unconstitutional. ... The appellate courts reserve that for themselves."

The law exempts churches from land-use restrictions unless a government agency can show there is a compelling governmental interest to impose a "substantial burden" on the religious organization.

King pointed out that the Maui commissioners did not address the federal statute in their June 2001 decision to deny the permit, which neighbors had opposed because of water and traffic concerns.

The church is asking to build a second-floor chapel on an existing agricultural building on its 6-acre Pukalani site.

Hale O Kaula is represented by Charles Hurd, of Honolulu, and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm that has invoked the statute in other challenges to zoning actions around country. In this case, attorneys challenged the Maui commission's denial of a special-use permit, which state law requires for church construction on agricultural land.

Maui Deputy Corporation Counsel Madelyn D'Enbeau said, "Relief will be more easily obtained in state court."

He stressed that the Circuit Court judge might affirm, reverse or modify the zoning decision or order that the matter to be reheard by the Planning Commission.

"I do believe the matter could be resolved" before the February trial date set before King, she told the judge.

Becket Fund attorney Roman Storzer said the county position is that "this is just a zoning matter." But "to the church," he said, "it is whether they can pray, whether they can meet, whether they can hold Sunday school."

Neither Storzer or D'Enbeau would discuss the growing litigation costs that are a consideration in efforts to reach an out-of-court settlement.

Jenkins said: "Our annual budget is $80,000. This case has put us in debt for many times that amount. In the end they (the county) will pay for it. As a taxpayer, I don't like that, either."

The U.S. Justice Department civil rights division entered the case last week, asking the court to find that the federal statute had been violated and to enjoin Maui County officials from applying state and county laws in a way the burdens Hale O Kaula's religious exercise.


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