[ OUR OPINION ]
CONSTITUTIONAL questions deriving from Maui County's rejection of a church's plan to add a chapel onto a building on agricultural land will remain indefinitely because of the county's muddled signals. U.S. District Judge Samuel King essentially ruled that the case is not ready for resolution. Both sides should take steps to either settle the case or ripen it to the judge's satisfaction.
Maui County should
clarify religion issue
THE ISSUEA federal judge has denied a Maui church's request that he bar Maui County from using its agricultural land for regular worship.
The case of the Hale O Kaula church has drawn national interest because of its testing of a two-year-old federal law that protects churches against government regulation. The law requires zoning authorities to show a "compelling interest" -- highly difficult to prove -- to support any decision that "substantially burdens" religious exercise. Maui County attorneys contend that the law is unconstitutional.
The Maui church, which has a congregation of about 60, bought the 5.8 acres about 10 years ago because its building in the nearby town of Haiku was too small for services. It has built a minister's residence and an agricultural building on the land and wants to add a second floor to the agricultural building to be used as a chapel. The agricultural activities are integral to Hale O Kaula because it follows the Joseph Ministry, which requires food production for its congregation.
The Maui Planning Commission refused to issue a special-use permit to the church in 1995 and again last year. Opposition to the church addition has been based on concerns about increased traffic and the lack of a water line, which could create a fire hazard. The church says it has a water catchment system and is willing to truck in additional water.
On Wednesday, Judge King denied the church's motion to forbid the county from refusing to grant a special permit allowing regular worship at its existing building because it was not clear to him whether the county had ever banned such activities. He asked the county and the church to "clarify what exactly is being prohibited."
Attorneys for the Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, representing the church, promptly sent a letter to Maui County attorneys asking for the same clarification requested by the judge. The county should either grant or reject the church's application for a special permit to worship on its agricultural land, they said.
The county's opposition to expansion of the church's agricultural building is based not on the structure itself but its proposed use as a place of worship, drawing people onto the property and, with them, traffic and fire safety problems. It would be inconsistent for the county to allow the church's congregation to worship on the land after having refused a special permit for building a chapel.
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