The Hawaii Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled 4–1 to approve construction of a giant telescope that was halted in 2015 after Native Hawaiians protested building on the Big Island's summit, which is considered to be a sacred location and their birthplace.
The ruling is the latest development in a long-running controversy that has pitted the scientific community against Native Hawaiian groups.
Hawaii Attorney General Russell Suzuki said at a news conference Tuesday that it is possible to ask the court for a motion to reconsider in the next 10 days, after which the case could be appealed to the US Supreme Court.
The Thirty Meter Telescope is being constructed at the highest point in Hawaii at the top of Mauna Kea on the Big Island, where there are more than a dozen smaller telescopes, built starting in the 1960s, already in operation.
The summit of the Big Island is considered by astronomers to be one of the best locations in the world for a stargazing due to the height of Mauna Kea — it is the tallest point in the Pacific — and the geographical isolation of Hawaii, which minimizes light pollution. The $1.4-billion telescope will be 18 stories tall — the world's largest telescope — and visible from most parts of the Big Island. It will also be the most powerful in the world, capable of looking back 13 billion light years.
In October 2014, construction started on Mauna Kea, but it was met with protests by Native Hawaiians and environmentalists. Ancient Hawaiians considered all of the summits of Hawaii sacred, and Mauna Kea is part of their origin story, where they believe earth mother Papahānaumoku and sky father Wākea created the Hawaiian islands. Environmentalists have also said the summit is home to a fragile and unique ecosystem, and the only place where the already threatened wēkiu bug lives.
The protest movement was furthered by social media, with Game of Thrones actor Jason Momoa posting frequently against the telescope and others celebrities like Zoë Kravitz and Nicole Scherzinger joining in with "We Are Mauna Kea" images.
After 31 people were arrested for blocking the construction of the telescope, Hawaii Gov. David Ige temporarily halted the project in March 2015. Then that December, the state Supreme Court revoked the telescope's building permit, saying the land board's approval process was flawed.
Activists hoped that reconsidering the construction permit in the court system would stop the telescope, but last year a recommendation released by retired circuit court judge Riki May Amano said Hawaiian groups had failed to prove religious practices actually took place at the site prior to construction. She wrote that constitutional protection against "unreasonable interference with religious practices" does not protect against "interference with religious beliefs," and so she thought there wasn't enough to stop construction.
The case was then sent to the Board of Land and Natural Resources, which agreed to approve the construction permit. After that decision, the case was sent to Hawaii's Supreme Court, which affirmed the earlier decisions.
Tuesday's ruling stated that "Astronomy and Native Hawaiian uses on Mauna Kea have coexisted for many years and the TMT Project will not curtail or restrict Native Hawaiian use." The court added that the scientific discoveries made by the telescope would benefit everyone, including Native Hawaiians.
Ige said at Tuesday's news conference that he was "pleased" with the court's decision to issue the permit, adding that it "will allow Hawaii to continue to lead the world in astronomy."
TMT International Observatory Board of Governors Chair Henry Yang said in a statement that his organization is "grateful" for the decision to proceed with the telescope, adding that they still need to fulfill numerous requirements before starting construction.
KAHEA, a Hawaiian environmental group that has been against the telescope, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News that it is "disappointed" by the court's decision to allow construction "in a pristine area of Mauna Kea."
KAHEA also took issue with the opinion, saying it "wrongly relies on representations that there is 'no evidence' of Hawaiian cultural practices on the specific acreage proposed for the TMT."
"Thousands of Hawaiian cultural practitioners have affirmed the sacredness of the entirety of Mauna Kea. Thousands more have supported the protection of Mauna Kea from the TMT project. The court's opinion has done nothing to change this," the statement added. "We call on the university, Governor Ige, and TMT officers to put the well being of the people of Hawai`i first and to relocate their project away from Mauna Kea."