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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, December 7, 2003

Church zoning case raises basic issues

It is likely that a legal dispute between the County of Maui and a small Maui church will be resolved by the particular facts of the case.

But the case has captured the attention of major players and may become a national test case of the conflict between local zoning powers and a new federal religious freedom law.

The argument is whether Maui County has the right to deny a permit sought by the small Hale O Kaula church so that it could expand a chapel on some agricultural land it owns in Pukalani. The county cited traffic, infrastructure and other concerns in denying the permit.

The U.S. government then sued Maui County, saying the denial violated terms of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law that seeks to protect the free exercise of religion in land-use disputes. It says local authorities cannot deny building requests from a church unless there are compelling public interests to do so. That compelling interest does not exist in this case, supporters of the church say.

Whichever way this case goes — and we're in no position to judge — it does present larger issues, which is why it has drawn so much national attention.

The definition of what is a "church" is extremely vague, and rightly so. But the fact that an organization is a religion should not automatically be an excuse to trump broad land use and zoning laws established for the common good. It may turn out that the new federal law, while well-intentioned, is overbroad.