Complaint filed over prayers at Honolulu City Council sessions
By Rob Perez
Advertiser Staff Writer
Before many of the City Council's recent monthly meetings, a Christian minister recited a prayer, invoking the name of Jesus or messages from the Bible.
The Legislature similarly has opened its legislative sessions with an invocation, some recited by Christian ministers.
But the practice of praying in the name of a specific religious figure or advocating a message linked with a specific religion is now under attack by advocates for separation of church and state.
The Hawai'i Citizens for Separation of State and Church filed a complaint with the council this month, noting that 25 of 27 meetings since January 2008 have been preceded by a Christian prayer or sermonizing.
The group says it also plans to file a similar complaint with Senate President Colleen Hanabusa and the state attorney general's office, alleging that sectarian prayers recited at the opening of each session violate the First Amendment of the Constitution.
"The law is clear on this issue," said Mitchell Kahle, president of the loosely organized citizens group, which had been inactive for several years until recently.
Prayer advocates say the practice is appropriate and offers spiritual guidance to government decision-makers during challenging times. "I think it's a good thing," said Pastor Eric Hara of New Wine to the Nations in Pearl City.
Hara was invited to give the "Message of Aloha" to the council before its February meeting and shared a passage from the Bible about how love never fails.
"I wouldn't shy away from saying what I believe in," Hara told The Advertiser. "I didn't come in the name of Buddha or Mohammed. I came in the name of Jesus."
In light of Kahle's complaint, council Chairman Todd Apo said he is reminding council members about existing guidelines to ensure the messages aren't overly religious. But he said he doesn't see a need for a policy change, even though a few of the recent messages have "gone deeper into religion than was appropriate."
Hanabusa said she intends to refer the complaint to the attorney general's office and will take guidance from that office and also ask members of the Senate's Democratic caucus how to proceed.
But she noted that the practice of opening the Senate session with an invocation predates her time in the Legislature , isn't limited to any one religion and is arranged by individual senators via a rotation arranged alphabetically.
"We don't screen," she said, adding that Buddhist priests, rabbis and even Senate staff members have delivered the messages in the past.
Kahle's group isn't the only one raising questions about the practice.
Dan Gluck, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said his group will be monitoring council meetings to see how the aloha messages are handled.
"We're always concerned that governmental bodies stay within the narrow limits set by the Supreme Court," Gluck said.
In citing the nation's high court, legal scholars say government-sponsored invocations generally are considered constitutional as long as they remain nonsectarian, don't invoke the name of a specific religious figure or don't endorse a particular religion.
Kahle cites various court rulings in his city complaint to argue that the City Council's recent practices go well beyond what the law allows.
"We've had enough of Christians insulting citizens at public meetings," Kahle wrote in a recent e-mail to a Catholic priest who delivered one of the council messages.
At the council's monthly meeting last week, Apo himself delivered the aloha message — a move applauded by Kahle.
Apo said that change wasn't in response to the complaint but was planned several months ago. Instead of seeking outsiders to deliver the aloha message, Apo said he is encouraging each council member to personally deliver it when that member's turn to arrange the delivery comes up.
The decision, however, ultimately is up to the member.
'EVIL SPIRITS INVADE'
Council member Gary Okino, a devout Christian, defended the invocation practice. As long as no religion is excluded, the invocations are permissible, Okino said, though he acknowledged that mostly Christian pastors end up being invited.
Okino also downplayed an ethics complaint that Kahle filed against him over an e-mail Okino sent from his home computer to members of a Christian network. The e-mail focused on Kahle's prayer complaint and mentioned comments Kahle made at last week's council meeting.
The e-mail was entitled, "Evil Spirits Invade the City Council." Okino said the e-mail was intended for a private audience.
"I'm not speaking as a council member," he said of the e-mail. "I'm speaking as a Christian to my fellow Christian fellows."