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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, May 16, 2002

U.S. Justice Department to join Maui church case

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui County Bureau

The U.S. Justice Department has asked to join in the defense of a religious freedom law under which a small Maui church is suing the county.

U.S. District Court Judge Sam King is expected to rule on the agency's request to intervene in a case in which Hale O Kaula is suing the Maui Planning Commission for denying its request to build a place of worship on agricultural property in rural Kula.

The county isn't opposing the request to intervene, and the judge is likely to allow it, said Charles Hurd, attorney for the church.

The county argued in opposing the church's motion for a preliminary injunction to overturn the commission's decision that the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 is "patently unconstitutional.''

Last week, a federal judge in Philadelphia upheld the constitutionality of the law in a separate case involving a church that was denied the use of an office building as a place of worship. The Justice Department intervened in that case as well.

Hale O Kaula, now located on a small parcel in Ha'iku, bought the Kula property in 1990 and has tried to win county approval to use the land for services since the mid-1990s. Church officials say they want to carry out a ministry that incorporates farming.

The Maui Planning Commission on June 27 voted unanimously to deny Hale O Kaula's request for a permit to use its Anuhea Place property for religious worship. Neighbors of the church property, located in a private subdivision, have opposed the plan because of concerns about increased traffic and the impact on the area's rural atmosphere.

Church leaders challenged the denial with help from a Washington-based public interest law firm, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has been defending perceived violations of the law since it was enacted by Congress two years ago. The firm also was involved in the Pennsylvania case.

The law prohibits discrimination against churches in zoning and land-use cases and bars local officials from imposing a "substantial burden'' on the free exercise of religion.

A federal court hearing on Hale O Kaula's request for a preliminary injunction is scheduled for May 29.

The church's complaint accuses the Maui commission of violating multiple provisions of that law and of depriving the church of rights guaranteed under the U.S. and state constitutions.

At the time of the denial, the commission was advised by its attorney to consider only county and state laws in its decision-making. County zoning laws exclude churches from agricultural land.