Hawaii atheists have accused five island churches of intentionally filing false paperwork to pay less for the schools they rent from the state’s Department of Education (DOE).
Those involved, though, are questioning the atheists’ motives: Could the legal attack be tied to the churches’ outspoken support for biblical marriage?
Mitch Kahle and Holly Huber, members of Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of Church and State, filed the suit after a year of intensive research, trying to catch churches in wrongdoing. The couple claim the churches intentionally underpaid $5.2 million in rent to the school system.
They say the churches—New Hope Oahu, New Hope Hawaii Kai, New Hope Kapolei, Calvary Chapel Central Oahu, and One Love Ministries—pay only for a few Sunday hours but sometimes use schools for entire weekends.
“They’re there so long and they’re so cozy they just take a whole bunch of extra time, they come in on Saturday even though they’re only supposed to be there on Sunday,” Kahle told local television station Hawaii News Now.
The allegation, if true, caused the cash-strapped schools to lose money. Rental costs only cover upkeep, attorney Jim Bickerton said: “By not paying for what they use, they are directly taking money from our state’s children.”
On the other hand, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which represents two of the churches, said the churches have been truthful about their use of school faciliites at all times.
In fact, New Hope Oahu Pastor Wayne Cordeiro told Hawaii News Now the church itself had paid more than $1 million in upgrades to its school’s auditorium. But the plaintiffs claim “in-kind” donations don’t count. They also note the $3.2 million they say the church owes could have prevented the Farrington High School auditorium roof from collapsing last November.
The Family Research Council, however, suggests the lawsuit is really about ideological differences: “During the debate in the Hawaii legislature, some of these same churches have been outspoken proponents of marriage. Could it be that they’ve been targeted for exercising those rights from the pulpit?”
The state legislature, controlled by Democrats, will hold a special session next week to consider a bill legalizing same-sex marriage. Although public opinion is split, the measure seems likely to pass.
Huber is a staunch supporter of same-sex marriage, and many of her Facebook posts, and those of her friends, feature sharp criticism of Christians and other supporters of biblical marriage. She is also against the religious freedom for business owners who don’t want to support actions that violate their religious beliefs.
Kahle, though, told atheist blogger Hemant Mehta the idea to investigate stemmed from The New York Times’ (less-than-favorable) coverage of the Bronx Household of Faith’s battle against a city policy banning churches from renting public schools.
Motives aside, the one voice missing here is the school district’s. ADF claims “the school districts themselves agree that the churches have consistently paid all agreed-upon rents.”
At the same time, though, the plaintiffs unveiled a potential conflict of interest: Hawaii State Board of Education Chair Don Horner is a registered pastor with ties to the embattled churches. A pastor from one New Hope church asked Horner for lower rental rates and an exemption from the five-year rental limit designed to avoid permanent tenants. The Board eliminated the rental limit in less than three weeks.
ADF has called for the case to be dismissed, citing failure to meet detailed requirements of the statute the suit is built on. Plaintiffs, ADF said, haven’t “a single instance” of intentionally false documents filed by the churches. The main evidence plaintiffs cite simply shows churches potentially overstaying their contracted time slots.
“This is an agenda-driven lawsuit designed to get all churches out of schools,” New Hope staff pastor Mark Hovland noted in comments to a story in the Honolulu Civil Beat. “The churches have contributed millions to the DOE, money they wouldn’t get from other sources.”