6th Circuit Rules For Catholics Fighting Stations Of Cross Removal

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan erred when it twice denied preliminary injunctions for a Catholic group seeking to reinstall a Stations of the Cross exhibit on its prayer trail in Genoa Township, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously on Monday.

In a published opinion written by Judge Raymond Kethledge, joined by Judge Eric Clay and Judge Joan Larsen, the panel in Catholic Healthcare International v. Genoa Township reserved the lower court’s holding and granted the injunctions. It also rejected a cross appeal from the township on the matter.

The case centered around the group’s Stations of the Cross installation that it placed along a trail on a 40-acre wooded property conveyed to it in 2020 by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lansing. The “prayer trial” was created with 14 stations depicting the last days of Jesus Christ. It included an alter and stone mural.

In July 2022, the group told the township that it was creating the trail, but its community development director told them that it would treat the trail as a church and required a special land use and site plan to be approved prior to construction via the township’s zoning ordinance.

The group objected to the complexity of the application and process, but the township did not budge.

Court records show that the plaintiffs built the trail anyway, but none of them were visible outside of the wooded property. The township in October 2020 demanded that the trail and its fixtures be removed. The group did not comply and sought to expedite its longer-term plan to seek approval for an actual church building at the property as the township treated the installation as a church already.

A land use application was submitted for the church plans in December 2020, which included a plan for a 6,000-foot chapel, a driveway and a parking lot, along with the existing prayer trail. The Genoa Township Planning Commission recommended approval following a hearing, noting that it had gone above and beyond to address township concerns.

But the township board denied the application on a divided vote in May 2021, with those in opposition arguing it was inconsistent with the township’s master plan. The group was ordered again to take down the installation, but again refused.

In June of that year, the plaintiff brought the lawsuit before the federal court alleging that the township’s ordinance violated the U.S. Constitution, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and the Michigan Constitution.

That led the Livingston County Road Commission to grant a permit for the driveway but barred organized gatherings and the township sued the group in state court. The latter case resulted in an ex parte motion being entered granting a temporary restraining order to Genoa and ordering the group to remove its displays.

The federal court also denied two injunctions from the group based in part on abstention grounds. The 6th Circuit once before directed the lower court to reconsider, but rather dismissed the case on grounds that the claim was unripe. It also denied in part the motion for a preliminary injunction. Specifically, the lower court declined to enter an injunction allowing the plaintiff to restore its religious displays, but the court entered an injunction allowing the plaintiffs to hold organized gatherings on the property.

Upon an appeal over the trail, Kethledge wrote that the lower court’s ripeness determination was “plainly mistaken.”

“In land-use cases, the necessary event is simply that the government has adopted a ‘definitive position” as to ‘how the regulations at issue apply to the particular land in question,’ citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2021 decision in Pakdel v. City and County of San Francisco. “That has manifestly happened here: the 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. Moreover, those events have ‘inflicted an actual, concrete injury’ on the plaintiffs because the Township has actually forced them to remove the religious displays from their property.”

Kethledge went on to write that the mistake was to conflate ripeness and exhaustion.

“Specifically, the court reasoned that ‘only if the local regulatory process was exhausted will a court know precisely how a regulation will be applied to a particular parcel or use.’ That was the same mistake the Ninth Circuit made in Pakdel,'” the judge wrote. “Ripeness, in the land-use context, requires only a ‘relatively modest’ showing that the ‘government is committed to a position’ as to the strictures its zoning ordinance imposes on a plaintiff’s proposed land use. Ripeness does not require a showing that ‘the plaintiff also complied with administrative process in obtaining that decision.’ Yet that was the showing the district court demanded here.”

He added that the group had reason to think their prayer trail would be treated in the same manner as a private non-commercial park or recreational zoning type, which does not require a special land use permit where the prayer trail was located. While it was given instructions about the application and process, Kethledge said the ordinance included nothing that would have prepared the group for the determination that they needed a special permit.

“The plaintiffs can therefore likely prove that the Township substantially burdened their religious exercise when it required them to obtain a special land-use permit to retain the religious displays on their prayer trail. The burden thus shifts to the Township to show that its insistence on such a permit is narrowly tailored to advance a compelling interest,” Kethledge wrote. “The Township makes no attempt to meet that burden. The plaintiffs are therefore likely to succeed on the merits of their RLUIPA claim as to the specific injunction they seek here.”

The judge also held that “the forced removal of their religious displays inflicts an ongoing harm to their religious exercise; the restoration of those displays would impose negligible harm on others; and the public interest favors vindications of rights protected under RLUIPA.”

Regarding the lower court’s holding that the township was enjoined from enforcing its ban on organized gatherings at the location, Kethledge wrote the district court did not abuse its discretion when it did so.

In concurrence, Clay wrote that the plaintiff had shown it was likely to succeed on act-driven claim but emphasized that the township made no attempt to show how its restrictions furthered a compelling government interest.

“But in any event, the question is not whether the Township has a compelling interest in enforcing its special land use permit process for church building in general, but rather whether it has such an interest in requiring Catholic Healthcare to undertake that process solely with respect to the religious displays,” Clay wrote. “As the plaintiffs point out, other structures are allowed in the Township that do not go through this special land use permitting process. For instance, the Township charges $50 for a permit for a private residence to install an accessory structure. It is hard to imagine a compelling interest that would require a religious institution to undergo a lengthy and expensive permitting process in order to install religious displays, but which would not require the same for structures at private residences.”

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