Religion watchdog investigating relationship between churches and schools

Published: Jan. 13, 2012 at 10:32 PM HST|Updated: Jan. 14, 2012 at 1:42 AM HST
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Mitch Kahle
Mitch Kahle

By Tim Sakahara - bio | email

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A new federal court decision in New York could have ripple effects here in Hawaii.  The ruling stated 60 churches in Manhattan will not be able to use public schools as their place of worship.  The decision prohibits religious groups from using public school facilities.  Could that happen here in Hawaii as well?

There are some differences between Hawaii and New York.  New York specifically bans houses of worship from meeting in public spaces. Hawaii does not.  New York didn't charge rent for facilities but Hawaii does. But some wonder where the line between church and state is.

"Churches have sort of occupied schools and taken them over for such long lengths of time where the public might actually perceive that the school has become a church itself," said Mitch Kahle, Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of State and Church. "When church is separate from state I think everybody wins."

To prove his point he took photos of banners hanging on school grounds and trucks with "Simply Jesus" parked on campus during the week.  However it was during winter break.

"When we got the call from the school that they wanted to be sensitive to the question and concerns we immediately pulled the banners down and reset the banners right before our event," said John Tilton, New Hope Oahu Executive Pastor.

New Hope Oahu has used school facilities the past 17 years.  It is currently using five schools.  While the issue may not end up in court here in Hawaii, New Hope is still changing all its collateral, meaning signs and websites, to call what they do at schools "inspirational celebrations" instead of worship services.

"We want to and will call it an inspirational celebration and that will be what we do and it represents who we are," said Tilton.

"Well I think changing the name of what they do won't help them. I think the problem is a worship service is what it is. It's a very solemn, sometimes sacred ritual churches go through," said Kahle.

Kahle has requested the contracts for every church in the state that uses school property and how much they pay, in order to see if they're paying their fair share. Furthermore, he believes other groups have a tough time using school grounds on weekends because the churches are already there.

"If it turns out that there's a public benefit for the churches to operate and the schools are actually earning money or perhaps paying for things they couldn't afford that may show to be a benefit. I think what really matters is the churches are monopolizing this opportunity to the exclusion of other groups that might want to use it and I think those are the types of things we want to look into," said Kahle.

"We've learned and we've seen that we can actually benefit the community and benefit the school and that is our way of giving back," said Tilton. "It's been a very mutually beneficial relationship that we can make use of the facilities when they're not in use and then we can bless the school financially."

Many churches use schools.  New Hope Oahu says it's a win-win.  In Farrington High School's case the church says it pays $200,000 a year in rent and $50,000 a month in utilities. They make a $24,000 donation every year for the school to use as it chooses.  They have also changed the once condemned auditorium to be state of the art and will add $300,000 of upgrades to the sound and lighting system, replace the house curtain and refurbish all the seats.

"They're doing some construction and they even want to know if we want to be a part of that and it may be a pretty amazing partnership one of the first in the nation where there is a really close partnership with the school and we're excited about that," said Wayne Cordeiro, New Hope Oahu Pastor, during his Christmas service.

And the church plans to continue this relationship to the letter of the law.

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