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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 11, 2002

Atheist says he acts in good faith

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

Mitchell Kahle added another scalp to his belt when restrictions on apparel and accessories depicting Satanism were yanked from Kaimuki High School's dress code last week.

Mitchell Kahle says he takes up his causes "because nobody else does."

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

"To me, Satanism is a superstition," Kahle said. "Just like Christianity."

The point, he insisted, was that if one religious symbol is banned from a public school dress code, they all must go.

It was the latest in a string of successful actions initiated by Kahle since 1997 that have included the removal of church descriptions from the official Honolulu city Web site, the removal of crosses from various locations around O'ahu, and limitations placed on the use of nativity scenes in the annual Honolulu City Lights program.

Kahle, 39 — whom Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris once called "the Grinch who stole Christmas" — has positioned himself as Hawai'i's most relentless and visible watchdog when it comes to keeping the government on the straight and narrow in separation of church and state issues.

But reactions to Kahle's mission have been mixed. To Brent White of the Hawai'i American Civil Liberties Union, Kahle "has had a large and positive impact on Hawai'i."

To others, such as Patrick Downes, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Hawai'i, Kahle has a dubious agenda, is hostile to Christianity, and "goes out of his way ... to reassert his faith-phobia."

Other than the fact that Kahle (rhymes with rail) has been publicly attached to high-profile stories, most folks here have little knowledge of who he is or where he came from.

"I'd like to know more about the guy," said Jared Kaufmann, Maryknoll School history teacher and Kahle critic who has followed his activities in the papers. "What's his background?"

Christian beginnings

That background begins in the small town of Hillsdale, Mich., where Kahle was born on March 30, 1962 — the second youngest of five children raised by Gene and Colleen Kahle.

Your basic small-town boy focused on football, basketball and airplanes, Kahle eventually exhibited a remarkable aptitude for music. He attended the First Presbyterian Church of Jonesville, along with the rest of his family. But in the seventh grade he declared that he did not believe in God, and that he never had.

His mother, who he describes as a "good Christian housewife," was not pleased, but she and Kahle's dad, a retired general contractor, decided to never again insist that he attend church.

"Religion dropped off my radar screen after that" he said. "I never thought about it."

Following high school, Kahle pursued music. In the mid-1980s he studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Although music would remain his primary passion, he finally accepted the reality that it's a tough way to make a living. With that, he became a businessman.

Kahle met his partner and "soul mate," Holly Huber, in 1988 when he was attending Boston University and she was working at Houghton Mifflin publishing company. The two arrived in Honolulu in 1992 and established Island InfoTech, a company that designs data bases and Web sites.

They settled into their two bedroom apartment at the Queen Emma Gardens with two cats, Chelsea and Toby. When Kahle wasn't working, he was performing with Dr. Jazz, a traditional jazz combo, for which he plays a six-string fret-less Yamaha bass. For a time, he made waves as director of the Hawai'i chapter of American Atheists.

Cross to bear

Still, prior to 1997, Kahle says his claim to fame was that he had been born in the same hospital as the father of the late actor Jason Robards. That changed with his attempts to remove a cross at Kolekole Pass on Army property and the launching of Kahle's mission to keep state and church separate.

"Why do I do it? Because nobody else does," he said. "Believe me, I'd rather be playing my bass. I don't get a nickel for it. In fact, when I first found out about the 37-foot cross on government property, I made calls to find out who else would lead the fight to remove it."

When no one emerged, Kahle says he founded Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of State and Church, which he says consisted of around 130 members. HCSSC dissolved its nonprofit status after the organization sued the Army and the Kolekole Pass cross came down. The Army said the cross was removed because it was too expensive to maintain.

"We're a watchdog group, not a litigant group," said Kahle, who instructs those who want to donate money to his cause to send a check to the ACLU instead.

"What I'm doing is bringing these issues to the forefront."

He is aware that he is disliked — even reviled — by some. Once, when he tried to remove religious symbols from the office doors at the State Capitol, he landed in the hospital after being manhandled by an angry volunteer legislative aid.

And while he is known as the separation-of-church-and-state guy, he has also taken risks in other civil rights efforts, such as the time he waded into a crowd of hostile same-sex marriage foes wearing a pro gay-rights placard.

"I'm a civil rights activist," said Kahle, who describes himself as an atheist/agnostic/humanist who is fiscally conservative and socially liberal.

"Women's rights, gay rights, animal rights — any kind of injustice. I have an attraction to the underdog. I volunteer for all kinds of causes. I'm just known for separation of state and church."

In print, Kahle can come off as outrageous. In person, he's a more complex character. Sporting a beard and ponytail, he stands 6 feet 3 and weighs 215 pounds. He is simultaneously easy-going and intense. He is also not above goading his adversaries, such as when he repeatedly mispronounced State Sen. Sam Slom's last name during a radio debate.

"I always tell him, 'God bless you,' which I'm sure he doesn't really appreciate," said Slom (R-8th, Wai'alae Iki, Hawai'i Kai). "I don't doubt his sincerity, but I think the media has made more of what he does than it is. When we debated once on KHVH and I asked him what he thought his greatest achievement is, and he said making them take the cross down at Schofield Barracks. I said, 'That's it?! — that's your great achievement?"

Among the criticisms lodged against Kahle is that he goes too far and that his anti-Christian bias is transparent.

"My impression of him? He's no dummy, but I'm not sure what drives him," said Downes, who met Kahle for the first time two weeks ago and says they had a brief, civil conversation. "He has a thing against Christianity. I sometimes wonder if he's just using the separation-of-church-and-state issue just to bash the church."

Added Kaufmann, "Kahle seems to be denying America's history. The foundations of this country are based on religion. He stretches the concept of separation of church and state beyond all reason. He has a right not to believe. But he does not have the right to interfere with our ability to publicize or practice our religion."

No lack of admirers

But Kahle has his supporters, including Abe Arkoff, University of Hawai'i emeritus professor of psychology, who invited Kahle to teach three religious criticism courses at the university's Academy for Lifelong Learning.

"Mitch is engaging, he's knowledgeable, and he's courageous," said Arkoff. "He believes in the Bill of Rights, as I do — but he pursues his convictions and he gets results. He's kind of a one-man army. I admire him."

Sam Cox is an ordained Methodist minister who, along with Kahle, belongs to an inter-faith group that meets monthly for the purpose of increasing spiritual understanding.

"I don't agree with him on many things," said Cox. "He's pugnacious. But I like the guy. I'd rank Mitch up there with the prophets, because he asks probing questions. He makes us think. He's a good humanist/atheist. He makes a lot of sense. I believe he has had a positive effect on Hawai'i."

These days Kahle says he does a lot of thinking about religion. In addition to the "Bhagavad Gita," "The Analects of Confucius," and "The Encyclopedia of World Religions," Kahle's bookcase contains three copies of the "Holy Bible" — one of which bulges with book marks and Post-It notes.

"I can promise you I'm the only person in my family who has read the Bible from cover to cover," said Kahle, who contends that if you're going to argue with theologians with lofty degrees, you better know your stuff.

Fact is, should he ever decide to finish college, he wouldn't mind switching fields and getting a degree in theology himself.

What's his goal?

"To be saved," he said.

And then, with a sly and unrepentant grin he added, "... from God's followers."

Reach Will Hoover at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8038.