Saturday, November 28, 2015         

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Churches have not cheated state, group says

By Jennifer Sinco Kelleher / Associated Press


Attorneys representing churches being sued over renting Hawaii public school buildings for services said last week that the churches aren't doing anything wrong and the state knows how the facilities are being used.

Religious liberty group Alliance Defending Freedom filed a motion Wednesday to dismiss a lawsuit by Mitchell Kahle, founder of Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of Church and State, and public advocate Holly Huber. They claim New Hope International Ministries churches, One Love Ministries and Calvary Chapel Central Oahu owe more than $5.6 million in unpaid or underpaid rental fees.

According to the lawsuit, Kahle and Huber undertook a "rigorous, yearlong, church-by-church, boots-on-the-ground investigation" and found that the churches underrepresented their intended use of the school buildings and that the churches' use of electricity and other utilities is excessive. The lawsuit claims the churches used false records to reduce or bypass rental fees.

Alliance Defending Freedom's motion on behalf of One Love and Calvary Chapel argues the lawsuit relies on public documents that don't show any wrongdoing. The lawsuit is a false claims act complaint, which allows for private parties to bring action on behalf of the government.

Kahle and Huber "relied on documents they received from the government," Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based alliance, said Thursday. "If the state knows about it, there's no need for any private party to expose the alleged fraud."

James Bickerton, a Hono­lulu attorney for Kahle and Huber, called that a "silly argument."

"Any time someone cheats the government, there's going to be a public record of the false claim," he said. "What makes the claim false is not in the public record."

Spokeswomen for the state Department of Education and attorney general's office declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

Fernando Castillo, district supervisor for the New Hope and Foursquare churches named in the lawsuit, said it's not clear who is representing them because the lawsuit names New Hope International Ministries, which he said is the wrong entity to sue.

But he said he agrees with the alliance's assertion. "We found the same thing. It's not true that the churches have not paid. The churches have paid everything the school system billed them for."

The government is fully aware of the terms and conditions of the buildings' use, Stanley said.

"It was the government, through the school principals and the Department of Education, that set the rates," he said. "That's not fraud. That's an arm's-length transaction that the government is fully aware of."

A hearing on the motion to dismiss is scheduled for Dec. 19.

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