Trouble In Paradise: Tax Aid To Sectarian School Nixed In Hawaii

It’s perfectly fine for a religious school to have highly sectarian goals; it’s not fine to force all taxpayers to subsidize them.

It always pays to read the fine print. You never know what might be lurking in a lengthy, legalistic document.

Case in point: Legislators in Hawaii recently approved a state budget. As you can imagine, a $6 billion budget for a state of 1.4 million people can be a pretty complex thing. Some lawmakers probably signed off on it without reading every word.

But at least one legislator, Senate President Donna Mercado Kim, was prodded to take the time to look a little deeper – and it paid off. Kim was directed to something interesting buried deep inside the budget: a $1.5 million grant of tax money to a private Roman Catholic high school in Honolulu.

Damien Memorial School is operated by the Christian Brothers of North America, a Catholic clerical order founded in Ireland. The school's namesake, Father Damien, is celebrated for his work with those suffering from leprosy during the 19th century on the island of Moloka’i. (He eventually succumbed to the disease himself.)

The school is currently in the middle of a capital campaign to build a new athletic complex, student center and music building. It hopes to raise $12 million and is well on the way, with $7.7 million in the bank so far.

Apparently, school officials thought the taxpayers of Hawaii might like to kick in a little cash as well and applied for what are known in Hawaii as “grants in aid.” These are essentially targeted allocations to non-profits that operate in the public interest.

Does Damien Memorial fit the criteria for a grant like this? Hardly. The school’s website makes it clear that this is an institution that furthers a private sectarian interest. It states, “As a community of faith, missioned by the Roman Catholic Church, we espouse the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as exemplified in the Essential Elements of an Edmund Rice Christian Brother Education, and through the selfless service of Saint Damien of Moloka’i.”

What are those “essential elements”? Here are just four of them:

* “Proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ in word and deed.”

* “Permeate the entire curriculum, activities and all aspects of the educational process with the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.”

* “Encourage young people to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.”

* “Provide opportunities for liturgies, retreats, vocation awareness workshops and daily prayer.”

It’s perfectly fine to have highly sectarian goals like that; it’s not fine to force all taxpayers to subsidize them.

In fact, the Hawaii Constitution is quite clear on this matter. Article X, Section 1, limits education funding to public schools and says that no tax money shall “be appropriated for the support or benefit of any sectarian or private educational institution.”

Hawaii Deputy Attorney General Randall Nishiyama sent Kim a memo a few days ago pointing out that the grant to Damien Memorial is in violation of this provision. A spokeswoman in the attorney general’s office subsequently told Honolulu Civil Beat that the money won’t be distributed.

“I’m glad someone caught it before it was released,” state Rep. Karl Rhoads told Civil Beat. “It passed the whole process. Every single member voted in favor of the budget.”

Some people who oppose the grant did so on church-state grounds. Others were appalled that the state was even considering giving tax money to a private religious school at a time when many of the state’s public schools are underfunded and in need of repair.

Here’s the interesting thing: Civil Beat reported that Kim wrote to the attorney general “after receiving a phone call from someone questioning the grant’s constitutionality….” We don’t who that person was, but he or she saved the taxpayers $1.5 million and safeguarded the separation of church and state – all with one phone call.

Don’t ever think one person can’t make a difference. Sometimes all it takes is a willingness to wade through some words and blow the whistle when something doesn’t look right.