Civil rights group protests placement of religious symbols in Hawaii Statehouse

Wednesday, April 7, 1999

Hoping to persuade Hawaii lawmakers to remove religious symbols from the state Capitol, a group of citizens took to the state grounds yesterday posting its own messages on walls, in halls and elsewhere.

At an afternoon gathering before Honolulu media at the Capitol, the president of Hawaii Citizens for Separation of Church and State called the state grounds a “free-speech” zone. Mitchell Kahle, president of the advocacy group, said that members posted such messages as the Libertarian call to “Question Authority” because lawmakers had refused to remove religious symbols from walls, office doors, corridors and other common areas of the Capitol.

After state Sen. David Matsuura posted an ichthus on a wall not from his office in February, Kahle's group filed a complaint with the state attorney general. The ichthus — a fish symbol used by early Christians who lived under the Roman Empire — cannot constitutionally be displayed on government property, the group argues in its complaint.

“The offending symbol is obviously intended to advertise and promote Christianity,” the group said.

Girard Lau, the state attorney general, sent a letter to the state Senate president in March, saying that the posting of the Christian symbol is permissible because “reasonable persons are not likely to consider all the information posted on walls in government buildings to be government sponsored or endorsed.”

Kahle, however, called the attorney general's opinion disingenuous and cited a federal appeals court decision saying state government has an interest “in preventing displays of religious objects that might suggest state endorsement of religion.” Moreover, Kahle pointed to a Hawaii Administrative rule that prohibits all materials, religious or otherwise, from being posted in Capitol corridors.

Last week Kahle met with the governor and other law enforcement officials. Kahle said his group was “given the green light” to post its messages alongside the religious symbols in the state Capitol. The decision by Senate officials not to remove the religious symbols had created a public forum open to all types of expression, the officials told Kahle.

Besides Matsuura, about 15 other lawmakers have posted Christian crosses and Jewish Stars of David. Kahle and about 10 members of his group and the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union plastered political stickers calling for protection of church-state separation, Darwin fish symbols, and various other messages yesterday near the religious symbols.

“The new messages will put the Senate in the position of either keeping the Capitol a free-speech zone or complying with administrative rules that require all the symbols be removed,” Kahle said.

It appears unlikely that the new secular messages will force the state senators to remove the religious messages. State Sen. Cal Kawamoto told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin that Kahle's group's complaints and actions were unfounded. The senator also recently put a Jewish symbol, an ichthus and a small Buddha on his door in support of Matsuura.

Moreover, state Sen. Sam Slom tore the group's stickers from walls as soon as they had been posted. Slom then derided Kahle and his group in a half-hour tirade before local television and print reporters.

“I'm not sure how this situation is going to conclude,” Kahle said. “One thing for sure, HCSSC (Hawaii Citizens for Separation of Church and State) will never give up on this one. I would assume that these 'children' of elected office will eventually get the message as we increase the level of pressure.”