Taking The ‘At-Arms’ Thing Too Far

Legislators are very busy this time of the year, and some things move quickly and others slowly. Basically, there is strong evidence that everyone at the Capitol has a specific agenda and will do just about anything to win the day, but very seldom will a group or movement win the day without a fight. There are exceptions, and when they occur they should be recognized and rewarded.

The session is not over, but I’m confident that this legislative coup will not be topped. On April 29, 2010 – the last day the session – then-Senate President Colleen Hanabusa had just asked everyone in the Senate Chamber to stand, and a clergyman asked everyone to bow their heads for a “good luck” prayer. At that point, Mitchell Kahle stood up and after stating his name, loudly objected to the prayer as a constitutional violation. Kahle, founder of Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of State and Church, then dutifully sat down.

Kahle’s companion Kevin Hughes had a video camera rolling, and his video shows the sergeant-at-arms and a sheriffs deputy, both holding onto Kahle’s arm as two sergeant-at-arms employees hustled him out of the chamber and into the Capitol courtyard.

Kahle was arrested and acquitted at trial of disorderly conduct charges. As it turns out, the obvious setup worked out better than the Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of State and Church could have possibly imagined. The incident cost the taxpayers $100,000! That’s how much the state agreed to pay in an out-of-court settlement with Kahle and Hughes.

In the understatement of this session, Kahle said he was “pleased with the results of the lawsuit because the Senate has already taken corrective action.”

What kind of action? A spokesperson for the Senate president said sergeant-at-arms employees will undergo law enforcement training offered by the state Department of Public Safety. Additionally, the Senate changed its rules last year, no longer requiring an invocation to open its daily order of business. The state House makes invocations optional, limits them to two minutes and prohibits them from being used to proselytize, advance or disparage any religion or point of view, and attendance at and participation in invocations are optional.

I believe in the separation of state and church, but paying two actors $100,000 for their play in the Senate chamber is a little hard to rationalize. First, if any group needs a prayer, it is legislators. Second, the settlement is too harsh when you consider the protesters who disregard the law and continue to camp day-in, day-out around town and are not found guilty or penalized in any way.

The lesson here is obvious: Make a deal with a local television station to record your play, make sure you post it on YouTube and Facebook, and wait for a lawyer to volunteer to file a suit for your group. It will be a while before other groups figure out how simple it is to fool legislators and an outdated Robert’s Rules of Order.