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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 20, 2003

Pukalani chapel suit stays in federal court

Associated Press

A Maui church's fight to build a chapel in Pukalani will remain in federal court.

U.S. District Judge Samuel King has denied Maui County's motion to dismiss the lawsuit brought by Hale O Kaula church and leave the matter for the state court to decide.

King on Friday rejected the argument by county attorneys that the emphasis should be on the land-use appeals process rather than compliance with the federal Religious Land Use and Incarcerated Persons Act.

The U.S. Justice Department civil rights division recently entered the case, asking the court to find that the federal statute had been violated and to enjoin Maui County officials from applying state and county laws in a way that burdens the church's religious exercise.

King said he would not follow the course of a California federal judge who recently declared the federal law unconstitutional. The law exempts churches from land-use restrictions unless a government agency can show a compelling interest.

The Maui Planning Commission has twice denied the church a special-use permit for building a chapel on agricultural land.

King pointed out that the commissioners did not address the federal statute in their June 2001 decision to deny the permit. Neighbors had opposed the project because of water and traffic concerns.

Maui deputy corporation counsel Madelyn D'Enbeau told King she believes that the matter can be resolved before the February trial date the judge has set.

D'Enbeau and Roman Storzer of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, one of the attorneys representing the church, would not discuss the growing litigation costs that are a factor in efforts to reach an out-of-court settlement.

Church pastor David Jenkins said the church's annual budget is $80,000. He said the two-year court battle has put the church in debt for many times that amount, and that he believes the county eventually will have to pay those costs.