Atheists’ Lawsuit Against Churches That Deprived Public Schools of $5,600,000 Finally Results in Partial Recovery

Back in August, atheist activist Mitch Kahle, along with his partner Holly Huber, filed a lawsuit against a group of churches in Hawaii.

Mitch Kahle

The problem was not that the five churches rented out worship space at public schools — that’s perfectly legal — but that there was evidence that the churches had not paid fair rental price for about six years, thereby shortchanging those schools up to $5,600,000. (One of the schools that was owed more than $3,000,000 could’ve used that money after it had a roof collapse.)

If all of that wasn’t shady enough, it turned out Hawaii’s Board of Education chair Don Horner was also a pastor in the New Hope church system, one of the churches implicated by Kahle and Huber…

It’s also worth noting that this was a qui tam lawsuit, meaning that Kahle and Huber didn’t have to have standing or prove they were personally affected by the churches’ deception in order to bring about the lawsuit. They (along with their lawyer) did the research, they were helping the government recover lost fees, and a victory meant that they stood to gain anywhere from 15-30% of the money recovered.

There’s finally a little bit of good news to report. One of the churches has decided to settle the case instead of dragging it out in court (you can read the settlement decision here):

New Hope Church is paying $775,000 to settle a lawsuit by local activist Mitch Kahle…

Most of the money will go to the state’s school system but a big chunk — about $200,000 — will go to Kahle for pursuing the lawsuit, which accuses New Hope and several other churches of underpaying the state to rent school facilities.

That’s still only about a quarter of what the church actually owed, but as part of their deal, they don’t have to admit any wrongdoing. Similarly, Kahle and Huber are prohibited from talking about how much money they actually got from the settlement or what they plan to do with it.

But what about the Hawaii Department of Education? What will they do with the more than half-million dollars they’ll receive?

They have no clue:

… spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz said the DOE doesn’t yet have details on how it will spend its share of the settlement, which amounts to at least $581,000. She said it would be “a while” before she gets further information.

For what it’s worth, the money will be earmarked “for the benefit of the public schools.”

There are two more churches still under investigation and Kahle and Huber will be filing an amended lawsuit against them — the churches owed the schools over $1,000,000 so even a partial recovery would be substantial.

Part of what makes this such an important victory is that the state’s attorney general decided to pass on joining the lawsuit. Kahle, Huber, and their lawyer did this on their own, and the courts agreed that the church had to pay the same rental cost as any other group. Let’s hope they say the same about the other churches, too, since this case is far from over.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.