Michigan Catholic group wins zoning fight over display of Stations of the Cross

DETROIT (AP) — A Catholic group will be allowed to post religious displays along a privately owned “prayer trail” depicting the last day of Jesus, after a zoning fight with a local government in southeastern Michigan went all the way to a federal appeals court.

The court ruled 3-0 in favor of the group and issued an injunction Monday, saying Genoa Township in Livingston County was likely violating the rights of Missouri-based Catholic Healthcare International, which controls the 40-acre wooded parcel.

The township had said a special-use permit was needed because the project was the equivalent of a church building. The religious group objected but ultimately responded with a plan for a chapel and trail after spending thousands of dollars on the application. It was rejected.

Catholic Healthcare obtained the land from the Lansing Catholic Diocese to create a trail with the Stations of the Cross, 14 stops that commemorate the suffering and death of Jesus.

Stations of the Cross stayed up until the township in 2021 persuaded a state judge to order removal. Catholic Healthcare, meanwhile, filed a lawsuit in federal court, invoking a law that protects religious groups in zoning matters.

In the unanimous opinion, the appeals court said the group rightly believed that its prayer trail would be treated like any other recreational area in the township.

Stations of the Cross are "structurally akin to large birdhouses,” Judge Raymond Kethledge said.

“Plaintiffs are entitled to a preliminary injunction allowing them to restore the Stations of the Cross, altar and mural to their prayer trail,” said Kethledge, who was joined by judges Eric Clay and Joan Larsen.

The appeals court ordered a federal judge in Flint to ensure that the display is restored before Sept. 23.


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