Mitch Kahle, founder of Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of State and Church, received FFRF’s Freethinker of the Year award at the 34th national convention Oct. 8, 2011, in Hartford, Conn., for his work in convincing the Hawaii Senate to drop prayers to open legislative sessions. A longtime FFRF supporter, he was assaulted by Senate security for civilly protesting prayers.
I’m so honored to be here. Thank you so much for this award, and I am very proud of all of you. Before I begin, I would like to show you a brief video that has some clips from Hawaii news media about things we’ve done in the past.
[VIDEO]: This is KITV-4 news at 5. A familiar sight at the Kolekole Pass in Wahiawa is no more. The Army today tore down the Schofield cross today, saying it would cost too much to repair. But a citizen group said the landmark came down because of their lawsuit.
[MITCH KAHLE]: The Army has $285 billion dollars a year. The cross was a minor expense but a major exposure. We think it violates the First Amendment, and we are glad that they’re taking it down and we don’t have to continue with the lawsuit.
[VIDEO]: So, your kid joins a youth club, right? A place to meet other kids, to learn and grow and have some fun, and each kid gets a membership card, a card the child has to sign. And on that card it says, “I believe in God. Have a problem with that?”
[KAHLE]: If you don’t believe in God, then signing a card that says, “I believe in God” is patently offensive.
[VIDEO]: The Boys and Girls Club of Navy, Hawaii (at Pearl Harbor), is removing the phrase, “I believe in God” from its membership cards.
[VIDEO]: Talk over whether multiple theories of origin should be taught in classrooms is stirring controversy at tonight’s Board of Education meeting.
[KAHLE]: Creationism will not be allowed to be taught in Hawaii’s public schools’ science curriculum. (Kahle, after a four-hour meeting): I am very pleased. This puts an end to the controversy, and we’re not going to have to have the educational system dragged into what is in essence, going to be a legal battle.
[VIDEO]: The demonstrators say they won’t go away until the Scouts stop discriminating against homosexuals. “We are protesting the Boy Scouts because they discriminate. They discriminate against gay youth, and they discriminate against youth who do not believe in God.”
[KAHLE]: If you’re morally straight, don’t discriminate.
[VIDEO]: A group which says lawmakers have no right to post religious symbols on their State Capitol office doors struck back today. The group says the religious symbols violate the separation of church and state, and so they posted their own symbols on the doors as a protest.
[VIDEO]: Some folks are questioning tomorrow’s Good Friday holiday. A handful of protesters making their way through the Capitol today, are upset that it’s a state and county holiday. Activist Mitch Kahle, dressed as Jesus, was accompanied by members of the Hawaii Citizens for Separation of State and Church.
[KAHLE]: It is an exclusively Christian holiday. There are no secular precepts to Good Friday whatsoever. And so we would like to see the state take action to create an Aloha Day holiday in its place.
[VIDEO]: An advocacy group is protesting prayer tonight at the Honolulu City Council. The group believes that the invocation at the start of council meetings is unconstitutional. Mitch Kahle spent hours going over city records. In his mind, they all show one thing.
[KAHLE]: In the last year, all of the prayers except one have been of a Christian nature. They are showing favoritism to the Christian religion over the wide diversity of religions that there are in Hawaii.
[VIDEO]: A group that advocates the separation of church and state wants the city to remove four words taken from the oath taken by new Honolulu police officers. Until tonight, the police officers’ oath ended with the phrase, “so help me God,” but it was removed after a local citizens group complained the phrase violated our state constitution.
[KAHLE]: The actual wording of the oath does not include, “so help me God.”
[VIDEO]: Our top story tonight, a code of honor controversy at McKinley High School. It has to do with the words “love for God” in the school’s honor code, which dates to 1927.
[KAHLE]: This is posted in the classrooms, it’s part of the student handbook and it probably appears elsewhere, although those are the two areas that we’re concerned about most now.
[VIDEO]: In the unresolved problems segment tonight, we continue our investigation into the holy war that the American Civil Liberties Union has launched against God and America. Are we going to play this game, Mr. Kahle? Or are we going to be honest?
[KAHLE]: It’s your program, Bill. We can play whatever game you want. It’s inappropriate for a public school to be telling students what to believe and how to feel. And I’m really surprised that you would actually support the government telling students what to think and believe.
[BILL O’REILLY]: I’m not supporting anything like that.
[VIDEO]: When lawmakers got to work, the day began with a scuffle and an arrest. Just as the invocation was being delivered in the Senate chamber, protesters from the Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of State and Church interrupted.
[KAHLE]: This is a violation of the Constitution! This is a violation of the Constitution!
[VIDEO]: Seven months after he was hauled off in handcuffs and charged with disorderly conduct, a judge has found Kahle not guilty. Kahle’s protest lasted about seven seconds, then sat down. But the sergeant-at-arms was determined to remove Kahle.
I’m what’s known as a public troublemaker, and I would encourage all of you to join me in doing the same. It’s about participating in your community. When you do participate in your community, whether you go to a city council meeting or go to a board of education meeting, or go to your legislature, this is where you see the most egregious violations of separation of state and church.
I want to clarify that I always use the term “state and church,” not “church and state,” and that’s because the state is superior to church always. We need to remember that.
I have been protesting government prayer for over 15 years. I am personally, deeply offended when I am forced to participate in some sort of a prayer. It causes a disconnect in my brain, and I have to say I actually get angry.
The question I have when people ask, “Well, why do you get so angry?” is “Why aren’t you?” I think everyone should be angry at this sort of thing.
You can write letters, and that’s a great way to start. It’s very important that when you identify a violation that you remain calm, initially, and that you start out by writing a letter of complaint. Make your voice heard. Make it known that what the government is doing is improper and that you would like them to stop.
Sometimes you have to write more than one letter, and don’t be discouraged if you’re ignored. I had been ignored on the issue of legislative prayer long enough that I decided I had a right that when the gavel was pounded to bring the session to a start, and when the president of the Senate invited audience members to please rise, I knew I had every right to stand up and object to a violation of my civil rights.
I wrote letters of complaint and letters of warning that we would be coming to the Capitol and standing up to object to the prayer, if it violated the Constitution. We had examined videotapes of previous sessions and had seen that the prayers had been, over 90%, overtly Christian. Pretty much always ending in Jesus’ name.
And so we made good on our threat, and on the day of the incident — April 29, 2010 — we wrote letters to the president of the Senate, with copies to the attorney general, that we were going to come and object to the prayer.
They had members of the Sheriff’s Department there. Before going into the Senate chamber, we sat down with the head of security and explained to him our rights and explained what we were going to do. He said his officers would be neutral. I didn’t know that that meant beating us up.
We went up to the gallery and waited for the prayer to begin. And, as you saw just a little bit in the video, what happened was as I made my objection, I was summarily singled out and dragged out of the chambers. My wife, Holly, who is also very active in all sorts of causes, stood up a little bit later, and made the exact same objection that I did, but they were really intent on singling me out.
When the prayer ended and they were dragging me out, all the people in the gallery were yelling, “Amen, amen.” So what the government had decided was that voicing approval to the prayer was OK, but voicing disapproval to the prayer got you dragged out and thrown to the ground, my arm badly bent behind my back.
Then they noticed that my friend, Kevin, was filming the whole thing, so they attacked him. The Senate sergeant-at-arms, Bienvenido Villaflor, a former WBA world champion boxer, came over and gave the camera a direct left. From a professional boxer, it’s quite a sight to see, and then told his underlings to “get that camera.”
They knocked Kevin to the ground and smashed the camera. All the while, five deputy sheriffs stood by and did nothing. Then I was thrown to the ground, handcuffed and taken away. I was charged with disrupting government operations, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.
To be honest with you, like I said, I am a public troublemaker, and this put a big smile on my face the minute it started to happen. I knew it was going to be a great opportunity. I was taken to the Hawaii state prison and locked up. Though two of the three cells were empty, I was put in a cell with a very nice gentleman named Castro, who’d been in prison for 17 years, but it was fine. After almost three hours, Holly came and bailed me out.
Thankfully, there are progressive-minded lawyers in Hawaii, just like there are almost everywhere. My six-month defense, which included four hearings and a trial, was done completely pro bono. I was not charged a dime. I want to thank my attorney, Bill Harrison, for that.
Immediately after my acquittal, which was really a wonderful thing, because the judge looked at the video and her mind was instantly made up that I was innocent. From the bench she said it was wrong what was done to me and said I had every right under those circumstances to stand up and object to that prayer because it was a violation of my constitutional rights.
Truth on our side
It’s very important that you understand that in these cases we are on the right side of the law. We are the ones with truth on our side, so we can do these things with extreme confidence. Believe in the constitutional idea of separation.
We have filed a 14-count lawsuit in federal court against the state of Hawaii, the sergeant-at-arms and his staff and the Sheriff’s Department, and that lawsuit is currently proceeding in federal court.
From my perspective, everything in this case has been positive. I want to carry this forward not as an example that you should get arrested and whatnot, but that when our rights are violated so flagrantly, right in our face, we need to object. We need to say, “What you’re doing is wrong and you need to stop it.”
These young people are so inspiring, I mean, I’m a 230-pound man, 6 foot 2, and little Jessica [Ahlquist, a student activist awardee], she’s going to have a little bit of a problem. What I really would encourage everybody to do is to identify the violations that are going on in your community, because they are. FFRF sent 475 letters of complaint this year, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I would be willing to wager that there is not a government body in this country that doesn’t at some time at least violate the First Amendment in this way.
We were at a function recently, and just out of the blue, it was not even on the agenda, someone from the audience said, “Well, we should have a prayer.” She proceeded to go up in front of all the people to say a blatantly Jesus prayer. As soon as she sat down, my wife went over to her and said, “That was highly inappropriate. That was very offensive of you to do. You shouldn’t say a prayer, and if you’re ever going to say a prayer, you should keep Jesus out of it.”
The woman replied, “Well, I can’t say a prayer if I can’t say Jesus.” So we said, “Well, then don’t say one.”
We don’t tolerate overt statements of racism, at a party, for example. You just don’t tolerate it. We have to sort of adopt that tactic when it comes to religion. This might be controversial to say, but religion is a form of discrimination. We have to say something against it.
Mitch Kahle cofounded Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of State and Church (HCSSC) in 1996. Kahle has been a long-time civil rights activist since the mid-1980s while attending Boston University. After moving to Hawaii with Holly Huber in 1992, he became active in local efforts to legalize marriage for same-sex couples. Kahle and HCSSC have been involved in dozens of high-profile state-church controversies in the Islands. Professionally, Kahle is a documentary filmmaker and entrepreneur. In his free time Kahle enjoys sailing, hiking, and is a jazz bass player and composer.