Suit planned over denial of church permit near Hawaii volcano

San Francisco Chronicle/June 29, 2001

National religious freedom advocates said Thursday they will sue Maui County over its planning commission's decision to block a small congregation's plans to expand a church building on the lower slopes of the Haleakala volcano.

Attorneys for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty said the Maui Planning Commission's 7-0 decision to deny Hale O Kaula's request for a special use permit to add a second story to its "agricultural building" violates a federal law designed to prevent religious discrimination in local zoning. The law requires municipalities to show a compelling interest, such as public safety, before denying a religious group's zoning request.

Anthony Picarello Jr., an attorney for the Washington-based Becket Fund, said Thursday his organization plans to file suit against the county on behalf of the church. The lawsuit will likely be filed in U.S. District Court, he said. Commissioners, who expressed concern over the lack of water and other services in the rural area, said the church failed to make a case to invoke the federal law.

The 60-member church, affiliated with the Living Word Bible-teaching ministry, wants to add a second story to an existing "agriculture building" for church socials and services, an office, a library and storage. Because the land is zoned for agricultural use, the church must first obtain the special use permit.

In 1995, the congregation was denied a special use permit for an 8,500-square-foot church at the foot of the scenic volcano that dominates eastern Maui. In 1998, the church constructed its "agricultural building." A small minister's residence was also constructed on the property.

"The congregation is very interested in agricultural use," Picarello said. "Communing with the land is an important component of their belief system." Neighbors of the rural church -- the property sits at the end of a 15-lot dead-end road -- oppose the expansion, saying the congregation's current structure already attracts too much traffic. Glenn Kosaka, an attorney for the neighbors, said traffic along the road has already increased since the church moved there and that a dog belonging to one of his clients was killed by a vehicle last October.

Picarello noted that 20 of the church's 60 members are children. "With their best efforts they couldn't generate a traffic nuisance," he said. Picarello said church members are being discriminated against for their religious activities. "In the course of their opposition," he said, "neighbors stated on the record and elsewhere that they felt 'strange and uncomfortable' and 'unsettled' about church members, whom they accused of being a 'cult' and a 'so-called church' or 'commune."'

Kosaka denied any bias, saying his clients are practicing Protestants and Roman Catholics. Commissioner Bernice Lu also said the zoning commission members "definitely are not ruling because of religious beliefs." A message left for Planning Commission Chairman Jeremy Kozuki on Thursday was not immediately returned.

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