The Spirit of Aloha Temple (“Spirit”) and Fredrick R. Honig a/k/a Swami Swaroopananda are suing the County of Maui and the Maui Planning Commission (“Commission”) over the Commission’s denial of their proposal to use an 11-acre site for religious observance (including yoga), services (including weddings), and education. Spirit currently leases the site, located at 800 Humana Road, Haiku, Maui (“Property”), and uses it as a botanical garden, bird sanctuary, and staff housing. Spirit’s religious faith and practices are known as “Integral Yoga,” a worldwide religious organization established in the U.S. in 1966 that believes “the goal and the birthright of all individuals is to realize the spiritual unity behind the diversity throughout creation and to live harmoniously as members of ‘one universal family.’” Members of Integral Yoga strive to achieve this goal through asanas (yoga postures), pranayama (extension of the life force), the chanting of holy names, self-discipline, selfless action, mantra japa (sacred utterances), meditation, study, and reflection.
In 2012, Spirit and Honig applied for a State Land Use Commission Permit to observe and practice their religion at the Property, which is managed by a “volunteer team of ‘Nature Guardians,’ who see God as Nature and their service to Nature as worship.” While the Property is open to the public for secular use, their application sought to expand their use of the Property to allow them to exercise their religion in several other ways. They sought approval for “weekly church services for up to 20 people on Saturdays from 10:00 [a.m.] to 2:00 [p.m.], operate a living classroom for nature guardian skills for up to 23 people 4 times per week, and conduct sacred programs, educational, inspirational and spiritual, and spiritual ceremonies such as weddings for up to 80 persons 24 times per year and up to 40 persons 24 times per year at the Property.” Thereafter, Spirit and its swami amended the application “to request only 12 events per year for up to 20 people, 12 events per year for up to 40 people, 12 events per year for up to 60 people, and 12 events per year for up to 80 people.” They agreed to further limitations after consultation with the Maui Planning Department (“Department”).
Although the Department recommended approval of the application subject to 21 conditions, the Commission denied the application on March 25, 2014. The Commission’s denial was based in part on concerns for safety caused by increased traffic on a narrow road, and concerns for water and wastewater. In support of the denial, one commissioner stated, “while I respect [Spirit’s] rights to religion, it's not safe. Okay, maybe the Planning Commission, the State Department of Health recommended [approval with conditions] as satisfactory, but it's still not safe not to the degree where I would be comfortable with. Okay. I respect human life. I wanna protect it.” Minutes from the March 25 public hearing are available here. Less than a month later, Spirit requested reconsideration of the denial and submitted a reduction in the proposed use, but this was also denied by the Commission. The second denial was based on similar safety concerns.
Spirit and its swami sued in the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii and alleged defendants’ actions violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), the state and federal constitutions, and state law. They claim the Commission’s denial of their application substantially burdens their religious exercise under RLUIPA, and state: “[Spirit] does not have any realistic opportunity to purchase land elsewhere on Maui in order to construct its proposed religious facility with botanical use, and any such course of action would involve unreasonable delay, uncertainty, and expense due to Defendants’ land use regulations . . . .”
They also allege that defendants have treated Spirit less favorably than other secular and religious uses in violation of RLUIPA’s nondiscrimination and equal terms provisions. They claim “Kaulanapueo Church and Door of Faith Church in Huelo, Maui are accessed by Door of Faith Road, which at points is approximately 10 feet wide” and that “organized wedding services are conducted at a minimum of five other botanical gardens on the Island of Maui, presumably with appropriate approvals from the Defendants,” and that “traffic conditions at several of these locations are less safe than at the subject Property.” In addition, they allege the Commission applied unwritten and ad hoc “standards” to constitute a prior restraint on Spirit’s protected First Amendment activity, because “[t]he standards set forth in the County of Maui’s zoning regulations governing special permits for places of worship, and the standards applied by the Commission in reviewing and denying [Spirit’s] and Honig’s Special Use Permit do not provide a person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to understand whether such land uses are permitted or prohibited” and confer the Commission with unbridled discretion to review and decide such applications for places of worship. The complaint is available here.