Michigan township can’t ban Catholic group’s Stations of the Cross, court rules

Michigan township can’t ban Catholic group’s Stations of the Cross, court rules

Michigan, US - A unanimous ruling by a federal appeals court panel has upheld the claims of a Catholic group, asserting that a local government in Michigan violated federal religious freedom law by obstructing the use of the group's 40-acre property for a Stations of the Cross trail.

"Now this 40-acre rural property can be used again for religious worship and religious expression. We’re obviously very pleased by that," remarked Robert Muise, senior counsel and co-founder of the American Freedom Law Center, in a statement to CNA on September 12.

"When you’re not being allowed to use your land for religious worship to display religious symbols, that obviously impacts the right to religious freedom," he emphasized. Muise was part of the legal team representing Catholic Healthcare International (CHI), the plaintiff in the case.

This Missouri-based group advocates for Christian healthcare inspired by the example of the 20th-century Italian St. Pio of Pietrelcina, commonly known as Padre Pio. In 2020, CHI received a 40-acre wooded property in Genoa Township, southeast Michigan, as a gift from the Diocese of Lansing.

The organization intended to create a prayer trail with Stations of the Cross, an essential Catholic devotion focusing on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. They also planned to install an outdoor altar and mural within a grotto formed by the property's trees. Genoa Township argued that the prayer path project was equivalent to constructing a church building, necessitating a special use permit, as reported by the Associated Press. CHI initially contested the demand for a permit and proceeded to erect religious displays.

Furthermore, they invested thousands of dollars in submitting plans for an actual church building and a eucharistic adoration chapel, which was part of their long-term vision for the site. However, these plans were rejected on the grounds of zoning restrictions, property use regulations, and other factors such as traffic and noise rules. The township subsequently compelled CHI to remove all religious displays from the property and prohibited organized gatherings due to an expired driveway permit. In a unanimous decision, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled in favor of CHI.

They granted an injunction that prevents Genoa Township from obstructing CHI's religious displays. U.S. Circuit Judge Raymond Kethledge, who authored the panel's decision, determined that the township's application of zoning laws imposed a "significant burden" on CHI's religious freedom and likely violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a law that offers robust protection for religious exercise on land. Kethledge's decision stated, "Catholic Healthcare’s expectation that it could use the property for a prayer campus at the time it acquired the property was not unreasonable."

CHI had incurred substantial expenses of over $30,000 for the first permit application and $8,000 for the second, both of which were rejected. In its ruling, the appellate panel instructed a lower court to ensure the reinstatement of banned symbols and displays before September 23, the date CHI intends to host an event at the site. Kethledge concurred that CHI had endured "significant delay, uncertainty, and expense" due to the way the township enforced zoning ordinances.

He also criticized the township's attempt to classify the intended use as a "church" and subject the Catholic group to the arduous review process necessary for obtaining a church construction permit. The judge clarified that the Stations of the Cross structures were structurally comparable to large birdhouses, and the altar and mural were positioned on the ground. He highlighted that the common understanding of the term "church" referred to a structure where people congregate for worship.

Kethledge drew a parallel between the religious displays and workout stations in nearby public parks, as well as a lion-themed children's reading trail at a public park, which resembled the format of the Stations of the Cross. Muise, the attorney representing CHI, drew attention to the ban on organized gatherings at the property, deeming it an unprecedented restriction. "That meant no religious worship on the property," he emphasized.

"It’s important that we be able to use our property, our private property, for religious worship," Muise continued. "And the fact that the township battled us this long and hard for three years just for this fundamental right to religious worship is pretty disheartening. It took three years to get there, but we’re at least happy that we’re at the point where we’re at." The attorney stated that CHI would continue its ongoing legal action against Genoa Township regarding its plans to construct a small 95-seat eucharistic adoration chapel, which the township had rejected.

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