Honolulu City Councilmen Ernie Martin and Joey Manahan contend their proposal to subsidize the expansion of a Christian evangelical megachurch in Kalihi will benefit the community, despite criticism that it’s unconstitutional.
Martin and Manahan have suggested providing $250,000 of taxpayer funds to help New Hope Oahu’s $10 million capital campaign to renovate and expand its Sand Island headquarters.
Ken Silva, a pastor and spokesman for New Hope Oahu, said the money will pay for the construction of a new 400-seat auditorium that will be used for overflow seating during the church’s five weekend worship services.
He estimated that up to to 6,000 people attend the church’s services in Kalihi, and said those who can’t fit into the existing auditorium sit outside under a tent in the parking lot.
The new auditorium is just one part of a plan to expand the church’s facilities, which are envisioned to include new bathrooms, a 270-stall parking structure, an expo center, a dining café and a resource center.
But University of Hawaii constitutional law professor Andrea Freeman said Tuesday that paying for the expansion of a church would make the city vulnerable to lawsuits.
“It’s not constitutional,” she said. The government “cannot favor one religion over the other by providing funds unequally or supporting one religion over others.”
Both Martin and Manahan filed their budget requests Monday and declined interview requests Tuesday. The City Council is in the midst of crafting the fiscal year 2017 budget and plans to present a draft to Mayor Kirk Caldwell in June.
Martin, who chairs the Council and is considering running against Caldwell for mayor this fall, proposed “at least $250,000 out of current expenses shall be appropriated for the expansion of New Hope Oahu’s Center for Hope Capital campaign.”
His office released a statement Tuesday stating that the city has previously funded faith-based organizations such as Catholic Charities of Hawaii, the Salvation Army and St. Francis Healthcare Foundation of Hawaii.
“The New Hope Ministries on Sand Island is a multi-use facility providing community outreach programs to service the homeless, needy veterans, youth with special needs, victims of domestic abuse and those in need of marriage and family therapy,” said the statement attributed to Martin. “These services are available to all, without regard to any religious affiliation.”
The statement did not mention that the funding would be used to construct new church facilities.
Brent White, a law professor at the University of Arizona who previously worked as an attorney at the Hawaii American Civil Liberties Union, said the government may help fund a social service provided by a religious institution.
But he said it’s illegal to use public money to build a church.
“If what we’re talking about it is giving a church money so that they can build a place of worship. … It’s hard to imagine any scenario in which that will be constitutional,” White said.
It’s not the first time that New Hope has gotten entangled in the issue of separation of church and state. The watchdog group Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of Church and State sued the church in 2013, alleging New Hope shortchanged the state $5.6 million by using public schools without paying enough rent. The church paid $775,000 to settle the suit.
One of the plaintiffs, Holly Huber, moved to Michigan from Hawaii three years ago. But she said she’s very concerned about the idea that the Honolulu City Council would subsidize New Hope’s new facilities.
“It’s appalling that these two Council members would want to fund a church building when the city is so short of funds for all these other public purposes,” Huber said. “How is it possible that these Council members have no concept of the constitutional separation of state and church or what’s a good use of taxpayer dollars?”
Silva from New Hope said in addition to hosting weekend worship services, New Hope uses the Sand Island facility for over 20 ministries. Those are outreach programs to particular groups that involve proselytizing about the Christian religion and providing community services, such as clothing and meals for homeless people.
The church moved to Sand Island after getting sued by Huber’s group. “When we could no longer meet at Farrington (High School), we definitely needed a place to meet,” Silva explained.
New Hope has been actively soliciting funding for its capital campaign from its members as well as from private donors. Silva said the organization made presentations to both Manahan and Council Chairwoman Ann Kobayashi. Kobayashi, who leads the budget committee, didn’t include the $250,000 in her budget proposals, and did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Dan Gluck, an attorney at the Hawaii branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in an email Tuesday that religious organizations can apply for government contracts “so long as those organizations don’t use government funds for religious purposes.”
“This particular budget request is not very clear as to how these funds would be used, though there’s a troubling implication that public tax dollars would be used to fund religious operations,” he said. “Right now, though, this is just a proposed amendment to the budget, and the ACLU is confident that the City Council and its attorneys will vet this proposal thoroughly and resolve any potential constitutional concerns.”
Silva said the church is simply seeking available funding for its capital campaign as a qualified nonprofit.
“Just because we’re a religious organization, we shouldn’t be discriminated against, because we are qualified to access these funds,” he said.
Manahan, who represents Kalihi, also defended the proposal in a statement Tuesday, contending that the renovation of New Hope’s facilities would help benefit the community.
“Benefits to the City include dozens of new parking stalls for public use at no charge; more revenue as the revitalization of the Sand Island industrial area generates new business activity for area businesses; and the stated mission of New Hope to fully engage in helping us manage our homeless crisis and housing shortage,” the statement from Manahan said.
But Silva said the church hasn’t decided yet how parking spots will be allocated and what kind of public access will be allowed.
“We need 100 percent of our parking lot on the weekend,” Silva said, noting that it’s possible neighboring businesses could rent out parking spots during the weekdays.
The proposal has at least one city Council member feeling uncertain. Councilwoman Kymberly Pine said she doesn’t recall a similar budget proposal in the four years since she’s been at the City Council.
She thinks it would set an “unusual precedent” and wonders whether it would invite other churches to seek funding.
“What if the Buddhist church wants an expansion?” she asked rhetorically.
But despite her misgivings, she said it would be hard to vote against the funding.
“New Hope is very popular,” she said, noting that many constituents worship there.
Silva said the church has up to 10,000 attendees at its six locations island-wide.
“It would be up to residents to come and protest against it,” Pine said.