The separation between religion and government is respected — though in multicultural Hawaii, tolerance can soften the lines
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Dec 23, 2012
Hawaii is a place where religion, in its many forms, ebbs and flows like the ocean's tides. And like those tides, it has a way of splashing up over walls, a way that some see as characteristically charming and others find disquieting.
The notion that religion belongs in the realm of governance has its origins in the host culture, said Lilikala Kame‘eleihiwa, professor at the Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii.
"It's really foreign in Hawaii to keep that separated," said Kame‘eleihiwa, who is a practitioner of traditional Hawaiian religions and is writing a book on the subject. "All politics was religious and all religions were political."
That is not a notion universally accepted in Hawaii today, but it certainly seems to be an element in the more current church-and-state-separation dynamic. And the Christmas season is often a time when these things have come to the fore.
Protests over the intrusion of religion in the public space have been relatively mild but fairly numerous over the years. Kamaaina can recollect a federal lawsuit about 25 years ago over the raising of a cross at Camp Smith. The Christmas display at City Hall a few years later drew complaints about religious elements, leading the late Mayor Frank Fasi to allow various religious and secular community groups to compete in a lottery for limited exhibit space for their competing holiday themes.
Most recently, state Department of Education officials canceled a fundraiser involving Moanalua High School's orchestra after Mitch Kahle, founder of Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of State and Church, lodged a complaint because the event was too interconnected with New Hope Oahu singers and the church was actively selling tickets.
The episode drew fire from some church leaders and other supportive members of the community, with Kahle being dubbed a Christmas "Grinch." Kahle, who has been at the center of disputes over prayers at legislative sessions and other points where he sees important lines being crossed, rolls with the punches.
But when this particular story hit national TV — pundit Bill O'Reilly put it on his Fox show — things got much more heated than they do on home turf, Kahle said.
"We really got an avalanche of hate email, stuff I couldn't repeat here," he said. "Virtually all of it was from the mainland. It comes with the territory when you are an activist with controversial causes, but it was surprising.
"I do think people of Hawaii, they tend to temper their responses in a way that people who watch Bill O'Reilly don't," he added.
Kahle has no fight with private practice of religion but believes when it crosses the line into government-sponsored business, that communicates a sense of exclusion to members of a society who don't belong to that faith.
"When it crosses over into politics, it's no different from any other political idea and it deserves to be kicked around like a football," he said.
One court case Kahle cited was Ornellas v. Hamamoto, which the American Civil Liberties Union filed a decade ago on behalf of a McKinley High School student who objected to the religious tone of the schools's code of honor. Written in 1927, the code in part requires pledging "love of God." The case was settled the following year, with the agreement that the school would remove most reproductions of the code from its premises and materials.
Kahle said such fights are important because "one little violation leads to excuses for bigger ones."
"For the most part, people don't even think twice when religion is involved in government," he said. "People say, ‘We have "In God we trust" on our money; doesn't that mean we can have prayer in schools?' My answer is, ‘That's why we shouldn't have "In God we trust" on our money."
Not surprisingly, the Rev. Wayne Cordeiro, New Hope's pastor, has a different take on the issue. The church-state separation fight is "causing people to gang up on one side or another," Cordeiro said, which he added is needlessly divisive in a state where there's such a long history of finding common ground.
"Because we're an island state, we can't get in a car and drive away; we have to work together with one another and respect one another," he said. "We don't look at difference as something acrimonious. but neither do we try to blend it all in one."
In the case of the Gift of Hope event, he added, the cancellation didn't consider the wish of any Christian members of Moanalua High's orchestra to take part. The "partnership" of faith and nonfaith groups — even government entities — should be allowed if it's for "beneficent purposes," he said.
"When something like this comes out of intolerance and a hard fast line, that is something that has never existed in the past," Cordeiro said. "We learned to work with differences, dance with that, we're OK with that."
Kahle has critics in the religious community, but there are allies, too. The Interfaith Alliance of Hawaii has members from across the spectrum, mainly focused on cooperatively supporting solutions to social concerns. One of them, the Rev. Sam Cox, a Methodist pastor, said government sanctioning of religious practices can ultimately deal a death blow to religion, the opposite of what churches seek.
"Generally speaking, I'm a strong believer in a secular government," Cox said. "It's good for religions that one is not preferred over another. In Europe where the governments do prefer churches, religion is almost dead."
The alliance president is Randolph Sykes, Orthodox Bishop of Hawaii of the Inclusive Orthodox Church. He moved from his native California to Kauai, where he lived for several years — long enough to see how sticky the public religion issue can be. Sykes, whose paid profession is in transportation — he works now with Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization — was involved with the county on one project, which was his introduction to the issue of official blessings.
"What I was told by the mayor and people I was working with was that there has to be a blessing, we can't do this without a blessing," Sykes said. "In fact, if we don't do a blessing, they will probably end up with some kind of bad karma."
One reason for this sensibility is that blessings and prayers of some form have been part of so much of Native Hawaiian life. Although the conversion to Christianity of many Hawaiian alii led many of the commoners to adopt the religion as well, he said, the old practices were never fully abandoned. He remembered one heiau on Kauai that he and others had used for meditations.
"There were times when the kapu stick was in the ground, and we knew we couldn't go, because there were rituals being performed then," he said.
More commonly, the chanting and blessings are the ways Hawaiians pay respect, Sykes said, and that's become ingrained in lasting island traditions.
"The Hawaiians have a reverence and a respect, and I think that's more what this is about," he added. "It's not so much a religious thing. I really think it's important for us to begin differentiating between religion and spirituality."
That innate spirituality is also seen in official functions held by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, regardless of its official status as a state agency. OHA events often open with a prayer, and it recently held its investiture ceremony for newly elected trustees at Central Union Church, which raised Kahle's eyebrows at least.
Kame‘eleihiwa said this would be difficult to root out of any Hawaiian gathering.
"For us as Hawaiians, to pray to the ancestors whenever you start something is important," she said.
What makes the whole debate over public-private religious practices unique to Hawaii among the U.S. states, Sykes said, is that the island population is a "majority of minorities." There is such a range of cultures that care is taken to avoid stepping on toes.
"We have 400,000 gods," she said. "Add Jesus, and there's 400,001. Add in Buddha, and there's 400,002. There's much more respect for each other's religions here, and I love that."