Two houses of worship in Hawaii continue to battle against an atheist-led lawsuit accusing them of defrauding the state government of hundreds of thousands of dollars by paying "substandard rent" to procure meeting space inside of public schools.
Husband and wife duo Mitchell Kahle and Holly Huber — the atheists in question — used Hawaii's False Claims Act as the basis of their lawsuit last year, leading to a long legal battle between them and One Love Ministries and Calvary Chapel Oahu, according to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal firm representing the churches.
Kahle, founder of Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of Church, has been involved in atheist activism for years, with the latest church case serving as his most recent First Amendment effort.
At the center of the legal battle is the couple's claim that One Love Ministries underpaid Kaimuki High School by $930,000, with Calvary Chapel allegedly underpaying Mililani High School by an additional $171,000. The allegation is that the schools were used for longer periods than the churches' applications allowed, according to the Star Advertiser.
As a result, Kahle believes that the houses of worship short-changed the government — and he wants a payout.
"They're there so long and they're so cozy they just take a whole bunch of extra time, they come in on Saturday even though they're only supposed to be there on Sunday," he told KHNL-TV.
The lawsuit was initially dismissed in January, with Kahle and Huber amending the complaint and resubmitting it. It was subsequently allowed to proceed following an October reversal, as the state examines how a federal statute impacts the atheists' claims.
One Love Ministries and Calvary Chapel Oahu have since filed an appeal in an effort to stop the case from moving forward, denying that they have defrauded the government of any money and claiming that they have, instead, paid any and all agreed-upon rates.
James Hochberg, a lawyer involved in the case, believes that the lawsuit stems from "a clear hostility to churches." The Alliance Defending Freeom, which is serving as co-counsel, agrees.
"The only thing these churches have done is serve the schools and bring great benefit to their surrounding communities. They don’t deserve to be dragged through court any longer by two people who are seeking financial gain by attacking these congregations," attorney Erik Stanley said in a statement. "The trial court’s initial instinct to gut this lawsuit of its substance was correct. We will now ask the appeals court to definitively dismiss this baseless complaint."
Stanley also said that the atheists behind the case have used a "radical theory" that could lead to thousands of churches being kicked out of public schools if left unchecked.
The case originally involved five churches, though three of them — all part of the New Hope network — decided to settle for $775,000, they said, to avoid being entangled in long legal battles; $200,000 of that money reportedly went to Kahle, with the rest going to the state education system, according to the Christian News Network.
New Hope, though, did not admit to any wrongdoing in making the move. For now, One Love Ministries and Calvary Chapel Oahu will continue their battle.
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