Every morning before classes begin at Kawaikini Charter School on Kauai, students gather near the campus entrance, turn to the east, and begin a series of chants and songs meant to ready them for learning.

The morning assembly, called piko, is a common practice at many of the state’s 17 Hawaiian-focused charter schools. But what happens at the end of the piko at Kawaikini, one employee says, is a violation of the U.S. Constitution.


Stuart Rosenthal

“They pray every morning to start the day,” Stuart Rosenthal, the school’s business manager, said. “And the prayers are almost always Christian.”

Rosenthal filed a complaint with the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission earlier this month, accusing the school of eliminating his position for the coming school year because of his repeated criticism of school prayers.

“I work for a public school and am a state employee,” Rosenthal states in his complaint. “I should not be forced to pray to Jesus Christ.”

Kawaikini website

The website for Kawaikini New Century Public Charter School shows students lined up for the morning piko.

Kawaikini New Century Public Charter School

Since the 1960s, a series of court rulings throughout the country have sought to create a clear separation of church and state in public schools.

Although students should be given the opportunity to pray on their own, it would be a violation of the First Amendment for a student or teacher to lead a class in prayer, or for prayer to be a part of school-sponsored functions like athletic events, judges have deemed.

“If you are doing a chant that talks about the spirit and how to live, at what point would it cross the line to where it becomes prayer?” — Tom Hutton, Hawaii Charter Schools Commission

But in Hawaii, where the very word for prayer in Hawaiian has multiple meanings, the lines between culture, spirituality and religion are not always so clear — in particular at schools dedicated to perpetuating Hawaiian culture.

“It gets all muddy,” said one parent at Kawaikini who requested anonymity out of fear of being ostracized at the school. “Christian culture has been absorbed into Hawaiian culture, so the prayers are Christian prayers for the most part but the chants are non-Christian.”

While some parents may be concerned about Christian prayers at school, conservative Christian parents sometimes opt out of having their children participate in the chants because of concerns that doing so would violate their religion, the parent told Civil Beat.

“The line isn’t always so clear,” said Tom Hutton, executive director of the Hawaii Charter Schools Commission. “If you are doing a chant that talks about the spirit and how to live, at what point would it cross the line to where it becomes prayer?”

Rise of “Ethnocentric” Charter Schools

Hawaii was home to 33 charter schools in the 2014-15 school year, with a little more than half of those schools having a Hawaiian culture or language focus.

Charters are public schools funded by taxpayers, but they operate with a greater degree of autonomy than traditional schools and have their own governing boards.

Some of the Hawaiian-focused charters are immersion schools where all subjects are taught in Hawaiian. Others offer a bilingual curriculum with a focus on Hawaiian cultural traditions.

Since the early 2000s, the charter schools have played a critical role in the revitalization of the Hawaiian language, which had only about 30 fluent native speakers under the age of 18 by the mid-1980s.

The proliferation of Hawaiian-centric charter schools coincides with a national rise in what former University of Hawaii professors Robert A. Fox and Nina K. Buchanan call “ethnocentric niche charter schools.”

Students during morning opening protocol at the Ka 'Umeke Ka'eo charter school in Hilo HI

Students during morning opening protocol at the Ka Umeke Kaeo charter school in Hilo. The school’s curriculum is grounded in ancestral texts passed down as chants.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Across the country these niche schools, whether they serve predominantly Native American, African-American or Hawaiian students, aim to integrate more cultural, philosophical or linguistic elements into school curriculums and serve students who may not be thriving in traditional classrooms.

The schools fill an important gap in the public education system, Susanne E. Eckes writes in “Proud to be Different: Ethnocentric Niche Charter Schools in America,” a 2014 book edited by Fox and Buchanan.

But they can also raise legal questions, particularly around the separation of church and state, Eckes writes.

“Many charter schools serving unique cultural heritages do involve religion and religious traditions, which may raise First Amendment concerns,” Eckes writes.

A Prayer By Any Other Name?

The Hawaiian word for prayer is “pule,” but the word has other meanings, too.

A pule can also be an appreciation or a celebration and recognition of the creation that exists around us, said Kamaka Gunderson, administrator of Ke Ana La‘ahana Public Charter School in Hilo.

“Language restricts us,” Gunderson said. “When we try to translate for example the pule and what pule means, it is (difficult) because in the English language prayer has one specific element.”

In addition to pules written in the last two centuries as Christian prayers, older traditional Hawaiian pules can be a way of teaching language and passing on traditional knowledge, school administrators said.

“The chants, which can be very spiritually based for the individual, also hold scientific data.” — Olani Lilly, Ka Umeke Kaeo Charter School

There are 400,000 gods in the traditional Hawaiian religion, Lilikala Kame’eleihiwa, UH Hawaiian history professor and director of the Hawaiian Studies Center, said in an email. Those gods represent both elements of the universe and the ancestors of Hawaiians.

“Today Hawaiian charter schools and Hawaiian language immersion schools use pule or prayer on a daily basis to ask the ancestors to teach us their wisdom,” Kame’eleihiwa wrote. “This custom is integral to our lives and our Hawaiian teaching systems.”

“One can’t have a Hawaiian cultural school without pule,” Kame’eleihiwa wrote.

At Ka Umeke Kaeo Charter School in Hilo, the curriculum is grounded in ancestral texts that have been passed down as chants.

“We look at the chants and what they say and then our students do scientific research based on that,”  said Olani Lilly, the school’s facility manager and the head of its nonprofit arm. “The chants, which can be very spiritually based for the individual, also hold scientific data.”

At Ke Ana La‘ahana Charter, Gunderson said, the practice of pule is not one that she thinks would be interpreted as prayer in the Western view.

“Every morning we do a chant or an oli recognizing the creation that is around us, and an appreciation for that,” Gunderson said. “We also sing to celebrate the different mountains that are on our island and the different sacred places.”

Students don’t participate in formal prayer before lunch, but they do say a two-line “thank you” without an “amen” at the end, Gunderson said.

“Some may consider that a prayer, but in our context it is to show respect for those people who have prepared it and to give nourishment to our bodies,” Gunderson said.

So where would the line be drawn for Gunderson?

“If there was a Christian prayer read to my students, I would consider that an imposition because our piko is all in Hawaiian and it is more a celebration of what is around us and it is not directed to any one entity — it is really directed to the universe as a whole,” said Gunderson, who said she identifies as Christian.

‘Hawaiians Are Traditionally Very Spritual’

At Kawaikini, Rosenthal — and other members of the school community — say prayer is a frequent part of campus life.

Teachers and administrators take turns leading a pule at the end of the morning assembly, and it’s up to each individual what the pule is. Sometimes they are said in English, but most of the time they are in Hawaiian, Rosenthal said, adding the pules are almost always Christian prayers.

“I just didn’t like that my kid was coming home with these messages about God and Jesus and heaven.” — Parent at Kawaikini Charter School

Prayers are also offered at the start of staff meetings, and children in most classes take turns saying a pule before they go to lunch, Rosenthal said, adding the choice of the pule is up to the child, but they are often non-secular.

Rosenthal said he was told about the practice of pule or prayers at the charter when he was hired in 2011 under a different administrator. If participating was an issue, the previous administrator said, Rosenthal could excuse himself.

That changed under the current administration, Rosenthal said.

According to Rosenthal’s complaint, the school administrator told him that “prayer is an important part of who we are” and suggested that perhaps Rosenthal didn’t fit in at the school.

Rosenthal said he was told by the school’s administrator a few weeks ago that his position was being eliminated because of budget considerations, but Rosenthal believes the decision is related to his complaints about not wanting to participate in Christian prayers. Rosenthal estimates that he has complained to the principal once every few weeks for the last year.

“Stu’s job was one of several positions eliminated due to less resources available to the school and decisions were made to manage the school more effectively,” Principal Samuel Kaauwai said in an email. “As the school continues to grow, we have reorganized to meet the school’s needs. Staffing and funding continues to be an issue, especially in a small school like ours. All are accepted for their own beliefs. Stu was offered another position at a lesser salary and duties.”

Kaauwai wrote that the school practices Hawaiian cultural protocols and traditions, and that those “focus on acknowledgement and being thankful and respectful to and for everything.”

He did not respond to questions about how frequently those activities involve Christian prayers.

Kaauwai, who was a teacher at the school before taking over as principal, was named 2014 Educator of the Year by the Native Hawaiian Education Association. According to his biography on the school website, he is also a longtime church choir director and a board member of the Kapaa First Hawaiian Church.

The head of the school’s governing board, Leiilima Rapoza, also declined to answer questions about Christian prayer on campus.

“As I am not involved in the daily schedule of the school, I am unable to answer your question regarding the Christian components,” Rapoza said in an email.

Most parents and teachers at the charter school support the prayers, with just a small minority concerned about the issue, the Kawaikini parent said.

“We adhere to church and state separation, but we also understand there is a cultural aspect when it comes to Hawaiian values and that’s where things are not just black and white for religion and church and state.” — Department of Education spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cru

“They see that the prayers are very much a part of Hawaiian cultural practice, so for them it’s not a big deal,” the parent said. “I am fine with it as a part of cultural practice. It’s an important part of Hawaiian history, but I do think there needs to be informed consent and an opt-in.”

“I just didn’t like that my kid was coming home with these messages about God and Jesus and heaven, when that’s something I am careful to keep out of the house or frame in a certain way,” the parent said.

Kawaikini is not the only charter school to grapple with issues of culture and religion.

A former teacher at another charter school on Kauai said that when students were acting up in her class, she was told by the school administrator that she was not praying with them enough. This teacher requested anonymity, fearing recrimination.

Although court rulings ban the practice of prayer at school board meetings, meeting minutes for Kanaka Public Charter School on Kauai indicate the meetings often open with a pule. Most meeting minutes don’t specify what kind of pule, but a few from 2008 and 2011 specify Christian prayers, such as “Pule Kahikolu” or “Trinity Prayer” and “Pule Alakai a ka Haku” or “The Lord’s Prayer.”

The 2010-2011 Ohana Handbook for Kanuikapono Charter School, also on Kauai, contains the lyrics for “Pule Lanakila” with lyrics referencing both Jesus and Jehova. That pule is not in the current handbook.

A Constitutional Issue

Morning chanting and pules are generally activities that appear to be more spiritual than religious, Eckes wrote, “and would only raise Establishment Clause concerns if school leaders or students were leading students in religious prayer.”

A smart charter school, Fox said,  “would avoid like the dickens calling pules prayers.”

“What you describe with kids as a part of a program taking turns doing different prayers, if it were challenged in most places it seems to me that it would be illegal,” Fox said.

Giving praise to the universe may be viewed by some people as the equivalent of saying, “bless me Lord Jesus,” Fox said. But referencing a specific entity or religion is where a court may take exception to the practice.

“As soon as someone challenges a Hawaiian pule that references Jesus Christ, my guess is that they would win,” Fox said.

Although the issue is more pronounced at charter schools, the Department of Education also deals with respecting Hawaiian culture while avoiding church and state entanglements, said DOE spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz.

“A lot of practices that one person or another might claim are illegal remain in practice until someone challenges them.” —  Robert A. Fox, former UH professor

For example, the DOE is careful not to use the word “blessing” but instead to hold dedication ceremonies, even though blessings are common in Hawaiian culture and the dedication ceremony might include many of the same elements, such as an oli.

“We adhere to church and state separation, but we also understand there is a cultural aspect when it comes to Hawaiian values and that’s where things are not just black and white for religion and church and state,” Dela Cruz said. “We’ve tried to come up with compromises.”

The bottom line, Fox said, is that practices are ultimately legal or illegal only when judges say they are.

“In Hawaii, the kind of practices in general that some people would argue are Hawaiian cultural practices and others would argue are religious practices — those practices have not been challenged in court,” Fox said. “A lot of practices that one person or another might claim are illegal remain in practice until someone challenges them.”

Rosenthal’s Civil Rights Commission complaint is unlikely to make it to court. It will take anywhere from six months to two years to investigate the employment discrimination claim, and most cases are resolved without a suit, commission head Bill Hoshijo said.

The commission has the power to enforce anti-discrimination laws by commencing a civil case in court, granting the complainant the authority to sue or ordering “appropriate legal and equitable relief or affirmative action when violations are found,” according to state statutes.

In the meantime, Rosenthal said that the Hawaii Government Employees Association is talking to the school on his behalf, and he’s hoping to keep his current job and pay level.

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