Federal lawsuit
boosts Maui church’s case

The U.S. Justice Department has asked a federal judge to put a small Maui church on the fast track for construction of its chapel and to find that county planning officials violated religious rights by halting the project two years ago.

The Hawaii action is the first time the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has gone to court to enforce the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which exempts religious groups from local zoning laws.

But Maui County attorneys will argue Friday before U.S. District Judge Samuel King that the state Circuit Court is Hale O Kaula's quickest path to a zoning permit and that the matter should not even be a federal case.

The suit filed Thursday in Honolulu asked the federal court to enjoin the Maui Planning Commission from applying the state zoning law in a way that "substantially burdens" the 60-member Hale O Kaula in its religious exercise.

The Justice Department suit puts "considerable extra weight" on Maui County, said Pat Korten, spokesman for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty of Washington, D.C.

The law firm represents Hale O Kaula and is involved in several other suits seeking to force compliance with the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act by local governments on the mainland. At issue in this and other cases is whether local governments can demonstrate there is a "compelling government interest" to balance the burden that zoning law puts on a church.

The church filed its federal suit in 2001 after its application for a special use permit to build a chapel on agricultural land was rejected for the second time.

After meeting for several years in a Haiku chapel, the congregation sought to build a second-floor worship space atop an agricultural building on its 6-acre site in Pukalani. Denial came after the hearing officer found that the church use would adversely affect neighbors and "would burden public agencies to provide water, police and fire protection," according to the suit.

At a March hearing, King urged the two sides to seek an out-of-court settlement, and he found that federal law "did not facially invalidate Hawaii's land use law."

King also declined to consider questions about the Hawaii zoning laws, and that forced Hale O Kaula attorneys to bring its case to state court for the first time. But church attorney Charles Hurd tried Wednesday to persuade Maui Circuit Judge Shackley Raffetto to leave the matter in federal hands. Raffetto denied the motion to delay state court proceedings.

"If they want a permit, they need to be in state court," Maui Deputy Corporation Counsel Madelyn D'Enbeau said yesterday. "Unlike the federal judge, the state judge does have power to amend the Planning Commission decision."

King will hear Maui County's motion to dismiss the case from federal court at 10 a.m. Friday.


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