HONOLULU – Blowing conch shells and chanting Hawaiian prayers, some 15,000 people marched through downtown Honolulu (search) Saturday to protest a federal court ruling striking down Kamehameha Schools' Hawaiians-only admissions policy as unlawful.
"We are outraged," said Lilikala Kameeleihiwa, a professor of Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii (search). "This is a great setback for our people. Here we are on our own homeland and we can't educate our children."
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (search) in San Francisco ruled 2-1 on Tuesday that the private school's policy of admitting only native Hawaiians amounted to "unlawful race discrimination" even though the school receives no federal funding.
The decision shocked school officials and devastated the Native Hawaiian community. The school has defended the exclusive policy as a remedy to socio-economic and educational disadvantages Hawaiians have suffered since the 1893 U.S.-backed overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.
Protests against the ruling were planned throughout the islands Saturday.
"Our hearts have bled in these past four days," Michael Chun, headmaster at the school's main Kapalama campus on Oahu, told the massive crowd blanketing the courtyard surrounding Iolani Palace — the former residence of the Hawaiian Kingdom's last two monarchs.
"We must stand together to focus and right this wrong," Chun said. "March tall, march proud, march strong."
The Kamehameha Schools were established under the 1883 will of a Hawaiian princess. About 5,100 Hawaiian and part-Hawaiian students from kindergarten through 12th grade attend the three campuses, which are partly funded by a trust now worth $6.2 billion. Admission is highly prized in Hawaii because of the quality of education and the relatively low cost.
Non-Hawaiians may be admitted if there are openings after Hawaiians who meet the criteria have been offered admission.
The lawsuit was brought by an unidentified non-Hawaiian student who was turned down in 2003.
The appeals court wrote that the school's admission policies are illegal because they operate "as an absolute bar to admission of those of the non-preferred race."
Kamehameha Schools has said it will appeal. An injunction asking the court to order the school to accept the teenager for the fall term is pending.
At the Honolulu rally, Gov. Linda Lingle, introducing herself as a "haole" and "a non-Hawaiian," said the court's decision was "not just."
"The Hawaiian people have been tested many, many times," Lingle said. "This is just one more test that you will show you will overcome."
Amber Marquez, 17, a senior at the school's Kapalama campus, said Kamehameha has given her a future.
"We are just trying to preserve what little we have left because everything is being taken away," she said. "We just deserve this; we feel blessed."