Wednesday, March 24, 1999

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Pastor Rodger Hall stands in front of the Sunset Beach
Church of Christ and Christian School, where a neighborhood
resident has complained about a large sign.

Churches’ woes
a sign of the times

An Oahu church has been
cited for its oversize mural,
another for its rooftop sign

By Mary Adamski


A North Shore church faces a drain on the collection basket at the prospect of $100-per-day fines for maintaining a 96-square-foot mural of Jesus Christ on its building.

It's an illegal sign, according to the city Department of Planning and Permitting, which cited the Sunset Beach Church of Christ and Christian School on March 12 after a complaint from a Sunset Beach resident.

The North Shore congregation isn't alone. Another complaint is before the department about the Apostolic Faith Church in Palolo Valley, whose rooftop "Jesus Coming Soon" sign is a neighborhood landmark.

Pastors of both churches said they have no intention of dismantling the displays that identify their places of worship.

"That sign has been there since 1926 until today," said the Rev. William M. Han, Apostolic Faith Church pastor. He hadn't heard of the recent complaint but said, "We've had a lot of persecution, and we've fought it in court."

"We're not going to take that picture down," said the Rev. Rodger Hall of the Sunset Beach church. Members initially responded to the citation by removing the mural. "We thought, 'We'll try to work with them,'" Hall said. "On Sunday we put it back up because we don't believe it is a sign."

The 8-by-12-foot wooden panel shows an image of Christ's face in black and white, with no lettering. In addition, there is a sign with the church's name visible from Kamehameha Highway.

The size limit in that residential zoning would be 24 square feet, and a city permit is required, according to the citation.

The complaints were brought to the city by Hawaii Citizens for Separation of State and Church, which recently challenged a legislator's display of a Christian symbol at the state Capitol. The group's president, Mitchell Kahle, said he acted on behalf of complaining individuals. In Sunset Beach it was a non-Christian neighbor of the church, he said.

Kahle said the group filed six prior complaints about church signs in the past couple of years, and in each case, the signs were taken down. "The others were permanent signs which they had posted on state or city property to call attention to a church off the beaten path. An example: A church back in Aina Haina had put up a permanent sign on the medial of Kalanianaole Highway."

Kahle's group has brought other challenges on the basis of a violation of the First Amendment prohibition against government establishment of religion. The Army removed a cross from Kolekole Pass as a result of one case.

Kahle said he believes that signs on churches can fall under that constitutional guarantee of separation of church and state.

"If I was a business owner and I put up a sign four times larger than allowed, four times higher than allowed, I guarantee the government would be on us in minutes," Kahle said. "There is a general overlooking of violations by churches. They have the same rules as anyone else. That is why it is a separation issue."

City spokeswoman Carol Costa said the churches have the option of seeking a variance from the rules covering signs. The citation against Sunset Beach Church of Christ gives the church 15 days to respond, making Saturday the deadline.

"One of our inspectors responded when someone complained about the mural, and the inspector determined there was a violation," she said.

Costa said the law carries the penalty of daily fines "to get compliance. The idea is to get you to comply more than to get the money from your pocket."

Nick Huddleston wrote to Planning Director Jan Sullivan on behalf of the Sunset Beach church, saying, "We believe that an interpretation of the sign ordinance that excludes public displays of religious symbols on church grounds from classification as signs is both appropriate and in keeping with historical precedent and a concern for freedom of expression and religion."

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