The meeting was a lot like church except that no one passed the plate.

There were plenty of “amens” and “praise God” moments, and lots of prayer.

“We shall not glorify anyone but Jesus Christ!” said one audience member. “Rights come from God, not government!” said another.

But it was not a church meeting, nor was it held in a church. It was a “pastors luncheon” held in Room 423 of the Hawaii state Capitol.

I went to the March 24 luncheon because I was curious about the use of state buildings for religious purposes, and whether such luncheons violate rules prohibiting political activity.

What I learned was that the meetings themselves are legal and part of civic engagement, but what people say in the meetings — especially state legislators and candidates for office — could violate the section of the State Ethics Code that prohibits campaign activities in state offices.

Garret Hashimoto, state chairman of the Hawaii Christian Coalition and the organizer of such luncheons, said pastors are allowed use of a Capitol conference room as long as there is no campaigning involved.

“We have a right to be here, too,” Hashimoto told me. “We are not being controversial or anything. We follow the rules, but we pray over the building. We’re not doing anything to be controversial or antagonistic.”

Hashimoto first started holding pastors luncheons at the Capitol in the 1990s. The Hawaii Christian Coalition and the Hawaii Family Forum, which has also been involved with the meetings, succeeded in getting the Hawaii Constitution amended in 1998 to allow the Legislature to limit marriage to one man and one woman. After another success — the defeat of physician-assisted suicide six years later — there was no urgency to meet.

“But with this same-sex marriage issue, we had to come back,” said Hashimoto, referring to the special legislative session that legalized gay marriages in November. “The people were crying out for a chance to vote; they were denied. The opposition was so great. And right after it happened, now what — Pono Choices! Exactly what we said was going to happen.”

Pono Choices is an “abstinence-based, healthy” sexual education curriculum, according to Department of Education, developed by the University of Hawaii and one of seven optional curriculum used by the DOE. It has upset some legislators and their constituents, who complain it is inaccurate and age-inappropriate.

Why do the pastors meet at the Capitol instead of at a church?

“I do it here because everybody uses it,” Hashimoto said. “I do it here because, quite frankly, the pastors need it. They need to know the issues, whether we’re for it or against or whatever. It’s to know the issues and to take it back to your church.”

‘A Very Dark Time’

The March 24 luncheon drew dozens of religious leaders, including from Catholic, Mormon and New Hope churches. Tenari Maafala, the president of the state’s police union and a member of New Hope Oahu in Sand Island, gave an opening prayer.

“Father, we ask for your heavenly wisdom to resonate throughout and lift up our government leaders to you, to make the right decisions,” said Maafala, who made headlines during the same-sex marriage hearings when he suggested that he would not enforce same-sex marriage rights.

Four legislators also were at the luncheon — state Reps. Sharon Har and Jo Jordan and state Sen. Ron Kouchi, all Democrats, and Republican Rep. Richard Fale. All four voted against Senate Bill 1, the same-sex marriage bill that is now law.

Also in attendance were several candidates for office besides the legislators who are running again this year. As Civil Beat reported last month, Hashimoto and like-minded Christians are already supporting candidates who oppose same-sex marriage and targeting for defeat those that voted “aye” on SB 1.

Hashimoto reminded attendees at the lunch that campaigning was not allowed. But near the end a colleague of Hashimoto’s implied that financial contributions would be welcome to support a lawsuit to halt the Department of Education’s Pono Choices program on sex education.

Hawaii Christian Coalition.

Email invitation to the March 24 Pastors Luncheon at the State Capitol.

That prompted Michael Jon Danner, a Republican running against Democratic incumbent Sen. Jill Tokuda, to say the best place for people to donate their money was to candidates like himself.

“OK, but we can’t talk about that right now,” Hashimoto said, interrupting Danner, who managed to squeeze in, “We need to switch the legislative people out.”

Hashimoto is not a state employee, and only if he wins will Danner become a legislator. So it seems the State Ethics Code does not apply to them. But Har is a sitting legislator and an attorney, and it was her pep talk to the luncheon audience that, at a minimum, raises questions about the separation between church and state.

Har began her remarks by saying, “As many of you know, I think this is a very dark time in our history in the Legislature. I am not proud to be in the Legislature. I think this group that I am working with now is one of the darkest groups of people I have every worked with before.”

Some context: Har was part of the coalition of House Democrats who supported former Speaker Calvin Say, who lost his speakership in January 2013. Legislators like Har remain unhappy about the change in leadership.

At the luncheon, Har said she wanted the faith-based community to know “they are not alone” in being upset with the current direction of the Legislature, and that elected officials are not listening to them. She said she had “prayed and prayed to God to use me, Lord, to turn things around and to put people into office who will represent our values.”

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

State Rep. Sharon Har at the Capitol in 2014.

The representative explained how her husband told her that the same people who testified in support of SB 1 are “the exact same people who want to legalize marijuana and don’t want farmers to farm anymore and do not want to develop the urban core … the same squeaky wheel that continues to get the grease. So, if we don’t stand up one and for all as a group and as a people, we have no one to blame.”

Har said the faith-based community was a “sleeping giant” that was awakened by the same-sex marriage debate and the fight over Pono Choices, but because the community lost those fights “they were laughing at us. The sleeping giant went back to sleep. … We can no longer sit back.”

By this point the conference roomed began to resemble a revival meeting, with audience members shouting affirmations after nearly every sentence out of Har’s mouth. It was clear that Har was urging the pastors to get educated about legislation and who is running for office and to share the information with their congregations.

Har continued, saying that the media “is against us now” and then brought up the “controversial” bill granting a legal exemption, since killed, to allow Honolulu police officer to have sex with prostitutes as part of an investigation.

“If you actually understand that bill, if we take that exemption out, now all of a sudden we glorified prostitution and vilified our law enforcement,” she said. “That just shows you the state of crisis that this Legislature is in right now. The media is against us, we are up against the odds, and until we get people who represent our values in office, things are going to continue to go down hill.”

‘If Satan Rules’

Hashimoto is able to use Conference Room 423 with help from friendly lawmakers like Rep. Bob McDermott, the Republican who has been the most vocal opponent of Pono Choices and same-sex marriage. Reserving a room involves filling out a form and adhering to guidelines governing the use of state buildings, though the guidelines (except for the State Ethics Code, which applies only to “all state officials, state employees, state legislators, and state board and commission members”) say little about campaign activity.

The code states that using “state time, equipment, supplies, or state premises for campaign activities or campaign purposes” is a violation of state law. “State premises include state offices, conference rooms, working areas, and so forth.”

McDermott was on hand for a Feb. 24 pastors luncheon attended by Bart Dame, a member of Progressive Democrats of Hawaii. A few days later Dame emailed me his reaction to the luncheon, writing in part:

I arrived a little late, but I recorded most of the meeting. Part way through the meeting, Rep. Bob McDermott appeared to have noticed my presence, passed a note and whispers with Senator (Mike) Gabbard, who was sitting next to him, then rose to whisper in the ear of Garret Hashimoto, who was chairing the event. Hashimoto than called upon McDermott, who advised the people present that they had to refrain from open electioneering, as it would be an inappropriate use of the room.
Subsequent speakers stumbled over themselves, unsure exactly what they COULD say, given McDermott’s warning was in conflict with the actual purpose of the gathering. But the speakers before McDermott’s comments had no such inhibitions, as they discussed voter registration drives, voter ID and government efforts and as Hashimoto introduced “candidates” who delivered what can only be described as short campaign speeches. All of which IS recorded on my tape.

Oh, yes it is.

Among the candidates captured on tape are Duke Aiona, the former Republican lieutenant governor who tells the pastors that he is seeking a rematch against Gov. Neil Abercrombie this year.

Another candidate, Republican Joan Hood, who is running against state Rep. Cynthia Thielen, said, “God is going to give us a heavenly strategy. … I believe the government is in the hands of the (children) of God. … We need to adhere to what God said in this spreading darkness we face in this state.”

It’s not long after that when McDermott says, “I just want to remind everybody that we are in the Capitol, so you can’t talk about electioneering or anything like that. All you can talk about is faith and share with your brothers and sisters in that regard.”

Breene Harimoto, the Honolulu City Councilman now running for state Senate, manages to follow the rules. So does Gabbard and state Rep. Karen Awana. But Republican Kimo Sutton, who has run unsuccessfully for several offices, tells everyone that he has “come out of retirement” and hopes that folks will remember his name should they see it on a ballot this year.

Several times Hashimoto cautions against candidate announcements, but Pastor Greg Hood of Life Church Kailua — Joan’s husband — makes a closing prayer that sounds like a call to arms.

“If Satan rules in our halls of legislation, the pulpit is responsible for it,” he proclaims. “If our policies become so corrupt that the very foundations of our government are ready to fall away, the pulpit is responsible for it. … We don’t have to be afraid of our government. … Steer this state back into what God has called her to be, what her glory can show.”

Were rules violated at the two pastors luncheons?

Les Kondo, executive director of the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, listened to recordings of both meetings and concluded that, while some of the things said appear campaign-related, none seem to have come directly from legislators or other state employees. Even Har’s comments, Kondo concluded, seem more focused on helping pastors understand the legislative process than flagrant campaigning.

Kondo says, however, that the line can be “fuzzy,” and he has talked recently with both Har and McDermott to remind them of the State Ethics Code provisions. With election season already heating up, he says his office will send out an ethics advisory to all state department heads and legislators regarding the law.

Contact Chad Blair via email at cblair@civilbeat.com or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

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