Back in 2015, we first reported about a RLUIPA case pitting the County of Maui, Hawaii against practitioners of “Integral Yoga” (prior post available here).  Integral Yoga is 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.’”  Maui’s Planning and Zoning Commission (the “Commission”) has repeatedly denied the efforts of Frederick R. Honig, also known as Swami Waroopananda (“Honig”), and Spirit of Aloha Temple (the “Temple”) to use an 11-acre site on Haumana Road in Haiku, Hawaii (the “Property”) for Integral Yoga and other related religious uses.  Honig (a Senior Minister of the Temple) describes the Property, which is zoned for agricultural and conservation purposes, as the “most perfect property” in the world.  A federal court issued a ruling earlier this summer denying the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment, meaning the case may be headed for trial.

In 2010, the Commission denied the Temple’s and Honig’s application for a special use permit to use the Property for the following uses: “church, church operated bed and breakfast establishment, weddings, special events, day seminars, and helicopter landing pad.”  The Commission noted that a heliport was not allowed under the Maui County Code, many of the buildings on the Property lacked permits, and that agricultural property was not intended for commercial use.  The Temple and Honig sought reconsideration of the denial arguing that it violated RLUIPA, and proposing that the permit be amended to include only a church and related church activities, but this was also denied by the Commission.

In 2012, the Temple submitted another special use permit for church activities.  Maui’s Planning Department recommended that the application be approved subject to certain conditions limiting number of attendees and hours of operation, among other things.  In 2014, the Commission denied the application due to concerns about safety on the nearby, narrow Haumana Road, as well as the impact on health and human safety based on testimony regarding impacts to the quality of water in the area, increased traffic, and the serving of alcohol on-site.  When voting to deny the application, the Commission made a finding pursuant to RLUIPA that it had a compelling government interest in protecting the health, lives, and safety of the public.  The Temple stated it would comply with further reasonable conditions and agreed to a reduction in the proposed use.  Despite these concessions, the Commission refused to alter its denial.  A state court affirmed the Commission’s decision, concluding that it could not “find clear error in the Maui Planning Commission’s factual findings or error in its legal conclusions.”

The Temple and Honig sued the County of Maui in federal court, alleging violations of RLUIPA and the First Amendment, among other things.  Recently, the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment were both denied.  For purposes of the motions, the County did not challenge the validity or sincerity of Honig’s and the Temple’s religious beliefs under Integral Yoga.  The federal court stated that it was concerned about whether it “should be giving full effect to the state-court judgment, perhaps under the res judicata or collateral estoppel doctrines,” preventing it from granting summary judgment in favor of the Temple and Honig.  Questions of fact remained with respect to the RLUIPA substantial burden, nondiscrimination, and equal terms claims.  As for the substantial burden claim, questions remained as to whether the Temple created its own burden by seeking to use Property zoned for agricultural and conservation uses.  This follows a line of cases examining whether a proposed user of land had a reasonable expectation to use the land in accordance with religious beliefs at the time it sought zoning approval.

The federal court also found that on the present record it could not determine whether the Commission used the least restrictive means to advance governmental interests when denying Honig and the Temple zoning relief (for example, could the Commission’s concern for sight lines along Haumana Road have been addressed by cutting back vegetation and widening the road?).  Factual questions also prevented granting summary judgment on the nondiscrimination claim – specifically, whether the Temple was or was not denied zoning approval due to religious animus. With respect to the equal terms claim, the Temple and Honig identified secular uses approved to conduct nonagricultural activities on agricultural land (like Honig and the Temple sought to do) that they claimed received more favorable treatment by the Commission.  But the federal court reasoned that it could not determine from the record whether these secular uses are appropriate comparators because it was unclear if the uses had near them roads comparable to Haumana Road.  Summary judgment on the Temple’s and Honig’s First Amendment (prior restraint and free exercise) claims was also denied.

The decision in Spirit of Aloha Temple v. County of Maui (D. Hawaii 2018) is available here.