Spirit of Aloha Temple v. County of Maui

A sanctuary for spiritual growth

A Hindu organization called Spirit of Aloha Temple purchased land in Maui County, Hawaii, in 2007 for religious use. Years later, the Temple decided to expand its ministry by holding weddings on its property. Because the land was zoned for agricultural use, to construct the facilities it needed to host celebrations, the Temple had to apply for a special use permit from the county (a permit which secular entities are routinely granted).

Stifled by bureaucrats

Unfortunately, the Temple was denied the permit application by a commission of unelected government bureaucrats, who cited concerns such as increased traffic to the area around wedding celebrations. The Spirit of Aloha Temple sued, arguing that the permit denial restricted the practice of its faith and violated the RLUIPA. Passed by Congress in 2000, RLUIPA protects people of all faiths from zoning and land use laws being manipulated to squelch religious practices on a religious organization’s own land.

Protecting religious exercise on religious land

Here, a federal court undermined the independent check that RLUIPA provides against local bureaucrats. Rather than independently review the denial of the Temple’s land-use permit, the lower court deferred to the local bureaucrats when reviewing whether their decision was fair. Given that unwarranted deference, it is no surprise that the Temple’s RLUIPA claims were dismissed.

In March 2020, Becket filed a brief in support of the Temple at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Representing Becket on the brief was the Stanford Law School Religious Liberty Clinic, including faculty members Prof. Jim Sonne and Zeba Huq, and students Claire Greenberg and Nathaniel Bernstein. Comprehensively laying out RLUIPA’s text, history, and structure, Becket’s brief confirms that the government bureaucrats cannot both decide whether the Spirit of Aloha Temple can use their land to hold wedding services and then have their findings blindly followed when facing judicial review. Concluding otherwise would undermine the careful balance that Congress sought to ensure for people of all faiths by passing RLUIPA.

On September 22, 2022, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the Temple’s permit was allowed under RLUIPA.  

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Property rightsPracticing one’s faith almost always requires land use, but, unfortunately, this aspect of religious exercise is too often denied to groups who can’t afford to fight local zoning commissions or hostility. Becket fights to ensure the rights of minority faith groups to build houses of worship under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

Trump v. Hawaii

In 2017, President Donald Trump issued a series of executive orders banning entry for citizens of certain Muslim-majority countries. Becket filed an amicus brief when one of the orders came before the Supreme Court last year in Trump v. International Refugee Assistance Project. In January 2018, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Trump v. Hawaii, arguing that the federal courts should rely on the Free Exercise Clause, not the Establishment Clause, to resolve claims of religious targeting of Muslims. 

The notorious Lemon test is an ahistorical Establishment Clause test that asks judges to evaluate the state of mind of lawmakers rather than analyzing whether the government is creating an establishment of religion. Becket argues in its brief that when analyzing claims that the government is targeting particular religious people for disfavor, courts should use the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to decide the claims instead.

On June 26, the Supreme Court ruled on separate grounds, holding that the Establishment Clause did not apply with the same force to foreign nationals seeking entry to the United States. 

Importance to religious liberty: 

  • The Free Exercise Clause: The Free Exercise Clause protects religious people from government targeting because of their religious beliefs.  
  • Establishment Clause: The ahistorical Lemon test depends heavily on speculations about the state of mind of a single government official —this case should instead be evaluated under the Free Exercise Clause. 

Hale O Kaula v. County of Maui

They just wanted to worship and till the earth.

A simple beginning to a not so simple story. Hale O Kaula was a small congregation affiliated with the Fellowship of the Living Word that had been worshipping in the small Hawaiian community of Haiku since 1960. As they began to expand, they bought a new, six acre piece of land in 1991 in the Kula area of Maui.

The congregants were thrilled, because the new space was large enough for all of their proposed religious activities, as well as spacious enough to pursue a ministry characteristic of its denomination: agricultural activity drawn from the Old Testament of the Bible.

In 1995, they applied for a permit to build a spacious 8,500 square foot facility which would house a sanctuary, fellowship hall, restrooms, kitchen and offices. But the permit was denied.

So they built a smaller, solely agricultural building a few years later. The next year, they applied for a permit to add a second story to the building for religious worship. Their request was denied again.

Enter the Becket Fund. We filed a lawsuit on behalf of the church in the U.S. District Court in Honolulu, charging the Maui Planning Commission, Maui County, and the State of Hawaii with violating multiple provisions of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), as well as depriving the church of rights guaranteed to it under the U.S. and Hawaiian Constitutions. We made sure that the members of the Maui Planning Commission were served with the complaint as they walked in the door for their regular meeting in Wailuku in October, 2001.

The County fired back, arguing that RLUIPA “is patently unconstitutional.”

Enter the U.S. Department of Justice, in defense of the constitutionality of RLUIPA as well as in opposition to Maui’s blatantly discriminatory posture.

What ensued was a legal back and forth that included the congregation erecting tents on their own property and holding worship services, to which the media showed up and to which the County’s attorneys told them that “your past Sunday worship would probably not violate” Hawaiian law “if it is not a ‘regularly conducted church service’”—in other words, you can worship here every now and then, but worshipping every Sunday is out.

Ultimately, after several court rulings in favor of the church, Maui gave in. Hale O Kaula is now able to hold church services on its own property. Every Sunday.