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Catholic organization wins battle against Michigan township, can display stations of the cross

An appeals panel ruled Monday two zoning permit applications submitted by a group dedicated to St. Padre Pio give the group standing to challenge the city's refusal to allow a prayer trail on private property.

CINCINNATI (CN) — Catholic Healthcare International Inc. is likely to prevail on religious discrimination claims that stem from Genoa Township's refusal to allow a prayer trail and other displays in a 40-acre wooded area owned by the organization and, therefore, can once again erect stations of the cross.

The health care advocacy group, dedicated to furthering the work of the patron saint of healing, Padre Pio, prevailed at the Sixth Circuit after a protracted and expensive legal battle over zoning regulations.

After it was gifted a 40-acre plot of land in Genoa Charter Township, the organization applied for a special use permit to construct a 6,000-square foot chapel, in addition to a walking trail and various religious displays.

The township denied the permit over concerns about noise and traffic and ordered Catholic Healthcare to remove all religious symbols from the property, which prompted the group to file a federal lawsuit.

U.S. District Judge Shalina Kumar, a Joe Biden appointee, dismissed a portion of the lawsuit that sought relief under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act in December 2022 and reasoned the order's failure to submit a zoning application only for a grotto — and not the chapel — rendered its claims unripe.

The case was argued before a three-judge panel in July.

U.S. Circuit Judge Raymond Kethledge, a George W. Bush appointee, called Kumar's decision "plainly mistaken" in Monday's opinion and said the township's denial was a "definitive position" regarding enforcement of zoning laws that allowed for Catholic Healthcare's challenge.

"[T]he township has uniformly insisted that the plaintiffs obtain a special land-use permit for their religious displays; the Township Board has twice refused to grant them one, even when presented with an application limited almost entirely to those displays; and the Zoning Board of Appeals denied relief," he said.

"Moreover, those events have 'inflicted an actual, concrete injury' on plaintiffs because the township has actually forced them to remove the religious displays from their property."

With ripeness settled, Kethledge moved to the merits of Catholic Healthcare's claims and, specifically, whether the zoning process for its prayer trail imposed a "substantial burden" on its free exercise of religion.

He determined the organization "undisputedly" suffered "substantial delay, uncertainty, and expense" as a result of the township's application of zoning laws, which has largely turned on an improper definition of "structure ... for religious activity."

"The stations of the cross," Kethledge continued, "are structurally akin to large birdhouses, and the altar and mural were indeed set on the ground. But a church is a structure 'wherein' people gather to worship. And no person — much less 'persons' — could gather to worship inside any of these structures."

Several times in his opinion, Kethledge compared the Catholic order's displays to nearby public parks that include workout stations and even a "Leopold the Lion Reading Trail" starkly similar in format to the stations of the cross.

The township had also appealed part of Kumar's previous opinion, but the appeals panel upheld the lower court's decision to overturn a ban that prevented Catholic Healthcare from hosting organized gatherings at the property.

Ostensibly, the township claimed a now-expired "driveway permit" did not allow for such gatherings, which it argued could cause traffic congestion.

"The township," Kethledge said, "did not identify in the district court, and has not clearly identified here, any authority other than the expired driveway permit for a ban. ... More to the point, the ban on its face substantially impairs Catholic Healthcare's ability to use the property to further its religious mission."

As part of its decision, the appeals panel ordered the lower court to ensure the previously banned symbols and displays can be restored before Sept. 23, the proposed date for an event at the property.

Neither party immediate responded to requests for comment.

The panel also included U.S. Circuit Judge Eric Clay, a Bill Clinton appointee, and U.S. Circuit Judge Joan Larsen, a Donald Trump appointee, both of whom concurred with Kethledge's lead opinion.

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Categories / Civil Rights, Government, Religion

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