June 8, 2012
Hawai'i Beach Weddings Permitting Scheme Upheld by Ninth Circuit
Wedding ceremonies on Hawai'ian beaches may be the stuff of some fantasies, but they may also require permits from the state as any other commercial activity on state land would. In its opinion in Kaahumanu v. Hawai'i Department of Land and Natural Resources, the Ninth Circuit upheld Hawai'i's permitting scheme, except to the extent it allowed the state to alter the permits once issued.
The permitting scheme applies to ceremonies all state-owned beaches, even if there are three people at the wedding, if the officiant is receiving compensation. It prohibits tables, chairs, tents, and strictures demarcating the area, while allowing flowers, leis, chairs for the elderly/infirm, and "unamplified musical instruments including a conch shell."
The Ninth Circuit's unanimous panel opinion easily found that one of the plaintiffs, a wedding and events professional association, had standing, and quickly proceeded to the gravamen of the constitutional claim.
As the court expressed it, the First Amendment challenge posed three questions:
- First, do wedding ceremonies constitute “speech” protected by the First Amendment?
Second, what is the nature of the forum?
Third, are the challenged restrictions on commercial weddings permissible in the forum?
The Hawai'i Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) contended that weddings were not speech at all and thus excluded from First Amendment protection. Applying the "particularized message" expressive conduct test from Spence v. Washington, 418 U.S. 405 (1974), the court had "no difficulty" concluding that wedding ceremonies were protected expression: "The core of a wedding ceremony’s “particularized message” is easy to discern, even if the message varies from one wedding to another."
The forum issue was not so easily resolved - - - and indeed, remained unresolved. The panel seemed hesitant to render an opinion that might be used in other contexts. Moreover, while the DLNR contended that "all unencumbered state beaches are nonpublic forums" and the plaintiffs contended that "they are all traditional public forums," the court ruled that Hawai’i’s unencumbered state beaches were not so easily categorized. Instead, the beaches "vary from heavily trafficked beaches to isolated beaches accessible only by foot or watercraft," and on the present record, it was "difficult to put all of Hawai’i’s unencumbered state beaches into a single forum category." Thus, the court assumed - - - without deciding - - - that "unencumbered state beaches in Hawai’i are, as Plaintiffs contend, a traditional public forum." Thus, the panel stated it would assess the validity of all regulations "that we uphold under the most exacting test for restrictions on forum access." On the contrary, the panel assessed the particular provisions of the regulation that it did not uphold under the most lenient standard. The panel summarized its First Amendment holding thusly:
In sum, we hold that DLNR’s regulation requiring a person to obtain a permit for commercial weddings on unencumbered state beaches is narrowly tailored to a significant governmental interest, is content-neutral, leaves ample alternative spaces for hosting a wedding, and does not vest too much discretion in the government official when issuing the permits. We hold that the limitation on accessories, insurance requirement, and the indemnification/hold-harmless clause also satisfy the tra- ditional public forum standard. However, we hold invalid the grant of discretion to DLNR to revoke, or add terms to, a per- mit under the least exacting standard of review for a nonpublic forum.
The panel opinion also briefly referred to the plaintiffs' freedom of religion arguments, rejecting them because that while the regulation may have an incidental effect on specific religious "implements or physical symbols," this does not "render it impermissible." Seemingly, a more specific as-applied challenge, perhaps also stating a RLUIPA claim, might be taken more seriously.
Additionally, the court rejected the Equal Protection and Due Process claims: while recognizing that the "right to marry" is a fundamental right, the DLNR’s "regulation of commercial weddings on unencum- bered state beaches does not impinge on the right to marry."
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