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DETROIT (ChurchMilitant.com) - A Catholic group in Michigan is celebrating a big win for religious freedom after a lengthy battle with a local township.
On Sept. 11, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Catholic Healthcare International (CHI), allowing the group to post religious displays, including the Stations of the Cross, on its property. The religious group controls the 40-acre wooded parcel in Genoa Township in Southeast Michigan that was originally gifted to them by the diocese of Lansing.
Catholic Healthcare International, a Missouri-based nonprofit, is represented by the American Freedom Law Center (AFLC). Cofounder and Senior Counsel Robert Muise, who argued the case before the 6th Circuit this past July, commented on the victory:
We have been fighting with the Township and its attorneys for nearly three years on what should be basic and fundamental principles of law. Finally, the Sixth Circuit weighed in and vindicated our clients' fundamental right to religious liberty. While this is an important victory, the fact that it has taken this long to get where we are in this case is a sad indictment of where we are today as a nation. Unfortunately, we have to fight tooth and nail for what should be basic and fundamental rights.
The 6th Circuit unanimously granted a preliminary injunction ordering Genoa Township to allow CHI to display on its property the Stations of the Cross, a mural wall with the image of Our Lady of Grace and a small altar. It also affirmed that the township could not stop CHI from using the property for "organized gatherings," including religious services such as Holy Mass.
The three-judge panel granted the injunction, finding that CHI demonstrated a substantial likelihood of prevailing on the merits of its claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, passed by Congress in 2020 to prohibit this very type of discrimination.
In September 2021, Genoa Township obtained a state court order prohibiting CHI from displaying the religious structures and using its property for "organized gatherings," including the offering of Holy Mass and praying the Rosary on the property. As a result, CHI had to remove its religious items.
In the court's opinion, Circuit Judge Raymond Kethledge pointed to the double standard employed by the township:
Fillmore County Park in Genoa Charter Township, Michigan, includes a fifteen-station "Leopold the Lion Reading Trail" — with a series of large signs that, as one walks along the path, tell "the entire story" of Leopold. Meanwhile, on a wooded 40-acre property a few miles away, Catholic Healthcare, Inc. created a prayer trail with fourteen "Stations of the Cross" — depicting the story of Christ's last day.
The judge opined: "We reverse that holding and grant Catholic Healthcare's request for an injunction. We also reject the Township's cross-appeal."
Attorney Muise summed up the significance of the case, telling Church Militant
This is an important ruling in defense of religious liberty. As the courts have said time and again, it is always in the public interest to prevent the violation of a party's constitutional rights, and the public as a whole has a significant interest in ensuring the protection of First Amendment liberties.
Catholic Healthcare is a religious organization whose mission is to further the work of Padre Pio — the patron saint of healing. Supporters of CHI note that the opinion orders Genoa Township to allow the organization to return the religious items to its land by Sept. 23 — the Feast of St. Pio.