Tuesday, November 24, 2015         

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Churches' civil unions suit dismissed in federal court

By Ken Kobayashi


Hawaii's civil unions law has survived a federal constitutional lawsuit filed by two Oahu churches contending that they should not be forced to rent their premises for same-sex civil union ceremonies.

U.S. District Judge Michael Seabright dismissed the suit by the Lighthouse Outreach Center Assembly of God and Emmanuel Temple, the House of Praise.

In a 26-page opinion issued this month, Seabright ruled that the churches did not present an issue for the court to resolve.

The judge said no one has asked the churches to use their facilities for a civil union ceremony and that the churches cannot say when and under what circumstances a request will be made, "if ever."

Any move by the state to enforce the civil unions law against the churches is "highly speculative," he said.

Seabright threw out the lawsuit "without prejudice," meaning that it may be refiled later.

Deputy Attorney General John Molay said Friday the ruling was "correct."

The judge adopted the state's position that the churches "did not have standing or the legal right to bring the suit and the dispute was not ripe or ready to be adjudicated by the court," Molay said.

Shawn Luiz, lawyer for the churches, said they won't appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in view of Seabright's ruling that the suit could be refiled later.

Luiz said they will refile if the state moves to take action against his clients for refusing to rent the facilities for same-sex civil union ceremonies.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed the controversial legislation last year that allows same-sex couples to enter into civil unions that provide them with the same rights and responsibilities as traditional marriage.

The two churches sought to block the implementation of the law, which took effect Jan. 1.

But Seabright denied their request for a restraining order, saying their fears that the state would fine them were too speculative.

The litigation was put on hold while the state Legislature this year amended the law to essentially exempt churches from being required to rent their private facilities for the ceremonies.

The churches would still be required to rent their facilties that are open to the public.

The case resumed when the two churches said the exemption didn't go far enough.

They contended they should be unconditionally exempted under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.

The state's position is that the civil unions law applies to all churches, doesn't target any religion and protects the civil rights of people who want to use church facilities open to the public.

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