By Carol W. LaGrasse
In November, a little Christian church in Wailuku, Maui, ended a zoning saga that spanned over ten years and brought to national attention a law passed by Congress in 2000 that was meant to exempt churches from zoning where religious discrimination could be involved. The dispute between the 60-member Hale O Kaula church and Maui County, Hawaii, over the congregation's plan to build a proper sanctuary in place of the concrete block agricultural equipment storage building where they had been meeting had brought in heavy hitters ranging from the U.S. Department of Justice, on the side of the church, to the National League of Cities, the largest organization representing U.S. municipal governments, on the side of the county.
When the planning commission had denied the permit on grounds that the proposed church building would lead to increased traffic and noise, burden county services, and hurt the countryside atmosphere, the church turned to the new law, known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, for its defense. The area was zoned for agriculture, which fit the objectives of the church to grow organic vegetables and work with the members' children on the land, while being stewards of the earth. However, the pastor, David Jenkins, felt that neighbors opposed the church on the unfounded grounds that they were a commune or a cult.
The litigation that followed was reported as far afield as in The New York Times, which devoted a major article to the Justice Department's taking up the little church's zoning fight. Court arguments could have led to a ruling on the constitutionality of the federal law. But the results are inclusive, because the dispute ended with a settlement between the church and the county, leaving legal questions open.
The Honolulu Advertiser reported on December 11 that the church had prevailed over Maui County, "collecting a check for $700,000 along with a permit allowing members to gather on their Pukalani property for worship." However, a November report in that paper revealed that the permit issued by the county allows a 1,800 square-foot sanctuary only as a second story addition to the agricultural building, not as a separate building that various reports during 2003 had said was originally intended. Furthermore, the forty-year-old church also agreed to limit use of the building to the hours of 7 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily and to restrict the number of people in the sanctuary to 75 for regular services and 150 for four special events each year. This allows almost no possibility of growth for the congregation at their six-acre location. The long dispute had caused a "tremendous" financial burden and stress to the church "after so many years of struggle for just a simple constitutional freedom," Mr. Jenkins told the Advertiser.