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Church & State

The separation between religion and government is respected — though in multicultural Hawaii, tolerance can soften the lines

By Vicki Viotti


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.

Kame‘eleihiwa agreed.

"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."

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Ken_Conklin wrote:
Here in Hawaii there is one religion which has become a government-established religion, and that is the ancient Hawaiian religion. One example is the existence of island burial councils which operate by law as part of our government to enforce the belief that bones of dead Hawaiians are somehow sacred and must not be disturbed or moved. Another example is the belief that the taro plant is the elder brother of Hawaiians and therefore the University of Hawaii (a government agency) must be prohibited from doing genetic modification of taro. Another example is the insistence that government construction projects or openings of new buildings must be accompanied with a Hawaiian blessing which must be done by an ethnic Hawaiian priest who uses prayer to the Hawaiian gods in Hawaiian language along with sea salt and ti leaves used as religious implements. I'll bet that if it were the Christian religion being established in state government to prohibit disturbing bones or prohibit genetic modification of taro plant or to bless the openings of buildings, Mitch Kahle would long ago have raised a ruckus.
on December 23,2012 | 08:03AM
Ken_Conklin wrote:
** Religion and Zealotry in the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement -- How religious myths are used to support political claims for racial supremacy in Hawaii http://tinyurl.com/2n4hy ** The role of religion in Hawaiian history and sovereignty. How the ancient native Hawaiian religion is being revived to serve the political goal of establishing race-based sovereignty. How the native religion and Christian religion shaped culture and politics in the Kingdom of Hawaii. Compilation of selected webpages and books. http://tinyurl.com/yjyn9b5 ** Hawaii Legislature Informational Briefing Regarding the Akaka Bill by U.S. Senators Inouye and Akaka, and U.S. Representatives Abercrombie and Case, on March 31, 2005 (Hawaiian language, Christian prayer, failure of Legislature to perform due diligence) http://www.angelfire.com/hi5/bigfiles3/AkakaHawLegisBrfngFedDeleg033105.html
on December 23,2012 | 08:16AM
waikiicapt wrote:
You are correct. EVERYONE in our state has long "overlooked" the blessings and ceremonies that are "ingrained" into our culture here in Hawaii. We mistakenly see them NOT as a religious ceremony but as a tradition that gets a pass. But in fact, they are precisely a religious ceremony...that's the very point as has been articulated in this article. That's what makes Kahle such a hypocrite and more importantly a phony. If he were genuinely making an effort to separate church and state, he would start with the obvious. There are far more events that embrace Hawaiian style religious ceremony on a daily basis, than there are Christian ceremonies. But Kahle zeros in on Christian ceremony. He knows all too well that 'IF' he were to attempt removing Hawaiian religious ceremony from our daily lives here in Hawaii, he'd be run out of town on a rail. Kahle is a pathetic man who lives a empty hypocritical life. The sooner we all ignore him, the better off we'd all be.
on December 23,2012 | 09:17AM
HCSSC wrote:
From Hall v. Kawaiahao Church: "Church officials had argued that Hawaiian burial law didn't apply because they were Christian burials. But the appeals panel said burial law applies regardless of race, religion or cultural origin."
on December 23,2012 | 12:20PM
Ken_Conklin wrote:
So, does that mean that the burial laws also apply to Caucasians or Asians whose graves get disturbed during construction projects? Or does the court say the burial laws apply only to ethnic Hawaiians (regardless whether their burial is pagan or Christian)? Because if the law applies only to ethnic Hawaiians, that would violate the 14th Amendment equal protection clause. And if the law applies to everyone regardless of race, then let's see some non-ethnic-Hawaiian step forward and demand the right to have the burial council and the historic preservation gang and the DLNR render a decision in case of any planned disturbance or inadvertent discovery of a non-ethnic-Hawaiian burial.
on December 23,2012 | 01:51PM
HCSSC wrote:
I think the Court's ruling was clear "...burial law applies regardless of race, religion or cultural origin."
on December 24,2012 | 10:43AM
HCSSC wrote:
@ Ken_Conklin - HCSSC would be happy to assist any plaintiff with legal standing to challenge the so-called Hawaiian blessings (which are entirely religious). If you know someone with legal standing, please contact us directly.
on December 23,2012 | 11:31AM
HCSSC wrote:
One of the difficulties with challenging the so-called traditional Hawaiian blessings, is that most of the ceremonies are arranged by private contractors. However, we do believe that an opportunity exists to challenge blessings organized by Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART). Also, it appears in most cases the "Hawaiian blessings" are if fact Christian. The 2012 OHA Investiture, for example, opened with a Hawaiian pule that appeared to include numerous Christian references and a reading from the Book of Matthew. There's certainly nothing Hawaiian about that.
on December 23,2012 | 11:51AM
Maneki_Neko wrote:
I heard Governor Abercrombie was thinking of appointing Mitch Kahle to serve out the balance of the senator's term.
on December 23,2012 | 12:22PM
walterleu wrote:
Lucky we have separation of church and state. Let's not let our luck slip away.
on December 23,2012 | 03:09PM
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