Churches fight schools lawsuit

By Jennifer Sinco Kelleher
Associated Press

HONOLULU (AP) — A religious liberty group is fighting an amended lawsuit that claims churches owe millions of dollars for renting Hawaii public school buildings for services.

A judge previously dismissed a lawsuit claiming the churches owe more than $5.6 million in rental fees, saying the legal action didn’t contain the required level of detail for a case alleging fraud.

Mitchell Kahle, founder of Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of Church and State, and public advocate Holly Huber filed an amended suit in February, detailing alleged underpayment of fees by One Love Ministries and Calvary Chapel Central Oahu for the use of school facilities.

The lawsuit was filed under a law that allows private parties to bring actions on behalf of the government.

Religious liberty group Alliance Defending Freedom filed another motion to dismiss the lawsuit earlier this month, reiterating its previous argument that the state Department of Education knew how the facilities were being used.

“The substance of it is basically the same,” one of the group’s attorneys, Erik Stanley, said Monday. “There’s really nothing new in the amended complaint.”

A hearing on the motion to dismiss is scheduled for May 27.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

“By law, when plaintiffs bring an action like this, the state has the option to take over the case,” said Anne Lopez, spokeswoman for the state attorney general’s office.

“The state, by and through its attorney general, has declined to take the case which, leaves the relators to move the case forward on behalf of the state.”

Lopez said that decision isn’t a judgment about the merits of the case.

The original lawsuit also named three New Hope churches as defendants. But their denomination, International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, agreed to pay a $775,000 settlement, said general counsel Elford Clark. He said the court approved the settlement amount.

“We settled it because we felt it was better to help the schools than to try to fight a long lawsuit,” Clark said.”