Hawaii churches sued by atheists over public school rentals; lawsuit partially dismissed

Punaluu Beach Park on the Big Island, Hawaii.Wikimedia

A judge partially dismissed a lawsuit Tuesday against two churches accused of underpaying rental and utility fees to the Hawaii Department of Education.

The suit was filed in March by atheist activists Holly Huber and Mitchell Kahle, and was actually an amended version of a suit dismissed in December.

In the original lawsuit, Huber and Kahle alleged that five churches collectively owed the State $5.6 million: One Love Ministries, Calvary Chapel Central Oahu, New Hope Oahu, New Hope Hawaii Kai, and New Hope Kapolei. The churches rented space from public schools, and are accused of paying for less time than they were actually there.

Huber and Kahle—the founder of Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of Church and State—spent a year conducting surveillance and poring over public records before filing the lawsuit in March 2013.

In December, One Love Ministries and Calvary Chapel Central Oahu were dismissed from the lawsuit on the grounds that the charges against them contained no evidence of false claims, and came from public records. Under the False Claims Act, lawsuits cannot be based wholly or partially on information found in public records.

The other three churches settled the lawsuit in January 2014, paying $775,000 to the state of Hawaii. Huber and Kahle will receive up to $200,000 of those funds.

In the amended lawsuit against the remaining two churches, the plaintiffs alleged a quid pro quo relationship between the defendants and the Hawaii schools. In exchange for being billed for less rental time, the churches allegedly provided free mentoring programs, maintenance work, and other services.

First Circuit Court Judge Virginia Crandall dismissed the portions of the suit that were again based on public records, but allowed the case to continue.

According to Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley, the judge is interested in the churches' billed time versus actual use of the facilities, and the electrical fees the schools incurred as a result. ADF is representing the defendants in the case.

"We are confident that when the facts come out on those issues, the churches will prevail," Stanley told WORLD Magazine.