Hawaii attorney general defends Christian symbol in Statehouse corridor

Tuesday, March 23, 1999

Ichthus in Hawa...
Ichthus in Hawaii Senate corridor. Photo courtesy of Hawaii Citizens for Separation of Church & State.

The Hawaii attorney general has assured a state senator that he can display a Christian symbol in a Senate corridor without violating the separation of church and state.

In late February, after state Sen. David Matsuura placed an ichthus in a Senate corridor not far from his office, a state civil rights group promptly filed a complaint with the state attorney general. Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of Church and State argued that the ichthus — a fish symbol used by early Christians who lived under the Roman Empire — is a symbol of Christianity that should not be displayed on government property because it would represent an endorsement of religion.

“Citizens visiting the capitol are unavoidably exposed to the offending symbol on prominent display in the public corridor on the senate level of the state capitol,” the group wrote to the attorney general. “The offending symbol is obviously intended to advertise and promote Christianity.”

Matsuura defended the symbol and said he would not remove it. “I wanted to put that little 4-inch fish up,” he told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. “If I put up a big cross, that would be 'in your face' kind of stuff.”

Last week, Deputy Attorney General Girard Lau sent a letter supporting the display to the state Senate president.

Citing the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Tucker v. State of California Department of Education, Lau wrote that “reasonable persons are not likely to consider all of the information posted on walls in government buildings to be government sponsored or endorsed.”

Mitch Kahle, president of Hawaii Citizens, said that the attorney general's letter was misguided. In particular, Kahle cited language from the 9th Circuit decision that the attorney general's advisory letter did not include.

The 9th Circuit concluded in Tucker that “there is a legitimate state interest in preventing displays of religious objects that might suggest state endorsement of religion. The state has a legitimate interest, for example, in preventing the posting of Crosses or Stars of David in the main hallways, by the elevators, or in the lobbies, and in other locations throughout the buildings. Such a symbol could give the impression of impermissible government support of religion.”

Kahle says he also has discovered that Hawaii's administrative rule bars all materials, religious or otherwise, from being posted in Capitol corridors. The group sent a letter yesterday to a state comptroller citing the administrative section.

“We have now asked the state of Hawaii to simply enforce its administrative rules,” Kahle said. “I think by the end of the week, they will just start cleaning up the corridors. If they don't, I think I would go down there and insist on my right” to post messages or plaques in the Capitol.