Six years after being adopted, state permitting regulations are now being enforced for beach weddings

Wedding industry insiders estimate that more than 20,000 couples get married in Hawai’i each year. That amounts to more than 1,650 weddings each month, nearly 60 weddings a day, and millions and millions of dollars being pumped into the local economy.

At least one state representative says a set of six-year-old permitting regulations that the state only started emphasizing in August may dissuade people from getting married here and, in turn, significantly affect the related economic benefit to Hawai’i unless the process is reconsidered.

Four months ago, the Department of Land and Natural Resources issued a reminder that it requires permits for all commercial beach weddings on state beaches. Under these regulations, couples applying for a permit have to identify the location and size of the area as determined by county tax identification number, provide proof of liability insurance for using the site, and pay a nonrefundable fee.

“It sounds complicated because it is,” said Rep. Karl Rhoads. “At a time when tourist numbers are dropping, to add this level of bureaucracy for people to deal with on what should be a happy day just doesn’t make sense. People are being intimidated by the process, and if you’re trying to plan a wedding from a foreign country, it gets very confusing.”

Rhoads said that while he strongly believes in protecting natural resources, it doesn’t make sense to implement such strident regulations for a relatively non-disruptive activity.

“It’s really no different than someone going to play beach volleyball or have a barbeque,” he said. “We’re talking about a legitimate activity and they tend not to be particularly long. That’s kind of the point of beach weddings, to avoid all the hoopla and keep it simple.”

DLNR Chair Laura Thielen said that keeping it simple is exactly what her department is trying to do.

“We agree that most of these ceremonies are people coming down to stand there for a brief period, a lot of them locals, and we think that’s appropriate to continue,” she said. “All we’re trying to do is work with the industry to make sure we don’t have series of weddings with dozens of chairs and altars that they take up this public space and commercialize it.”

She also pointed out that the permitting process applies not just to commercial weddings but to any commercial operations, including kayak rentals, surfing schools, smoothie stands and any other business that might clog the beach.

“We’re trying to make sure that beach areas remain open and relatively uncommercialized because that’s actually the draw for tourists,” she said. “We have very unspoiled beaches. If we let them become a storefront commercial industry, our beaches will begin to look like Tijuana.”

Still, Thielen said she is open to discussing changes to the process that will help couples and wedding-planning companies go through an easier, more streamlined permitting process. She has already held a series of community meetings and responded to concerns, like posting the permit application online for out-of-state or foreign couples.

But efficiency and economic viability aren’t the only possible issues at hand. Members of the Catholic Church say the DLNR is infringing on its Constitutional rights by trying to dictate how and where religious ceremonies can take place.

“We have a lot of discrimination issues,” said Archbishop R.C. Anderson of the Ecumenical Catholic Church of America. “With the new changes, we’re now banned from having altars, chairs, arches, chuppah, kahili and tables except for a small table for a cake. It’s discriminatory to disallow items necessary for conducting a religious ceremony.”

Thielen said restricting tables and other items is geared not at the religious community, but at the recent proliferations of businesses hocking candlelight dinners on the beach. Anderson said that when Thielen met with members of the church and others last week, she promised to review their requests and come up with a suggested solution within 10 days.

“We’re hoping to hear back early next week, but we’re still moving forward with legal action,” Anderson said. “We have yet to see anything in writing.”

Regardless of how the DLNR proceeds, it’s unclear whether any of the church’s legal charges would hold up in court.

“We have the right under the Constitution to believe whatever we want without restrictions,” said Jon Van Dyke, Constitutional law professor at the University of Hawai’i–Manoa. “But we don’t have the right to do whatever we want, especially if it infringes on other people’s rights. There are lots of cases where people’s religious practices are restricted by the government for this reason.”

At this point, Rhoads said that he is not filing any legislation that would change the permitting process in hopes that DLNR leaders will take the initiative to do so themselves.

“We have two months until the filing deadline,” said Rhoads. “I hope it doesn’t come to that, but if I have to file a bill, I will.”