Michigan township can't prevent Catholic group from building Stations of the Cross prayer trail: court rules

A Stations of the Cross trail set up by the group Catholic Healthcare International is located in Genoa Township, Michigan.
A Stations of the Cross trail set up by the group Catholic Healthcare International is located in Genoa Township, Michigan. | Catholic Healthcare International

A federal appellate court has ruled that a Michigan township cannot prevent a Catholic group from building a Stations of the Cross trail on land it owns.

In a decision released Monday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit sided with Catholic Healthcare International, Inc. as it seeks to put a Stations of the Cross trail and other religious displays on 40 wooded acres in Genoa Township gifted to the organization by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lansing. Catholic Healthcare International is a Wildwood, Missouri-based organization seeking to advance the cause of Catholic healthcare by creating a hospital and medical school fully aligned with Catholic teaching. 

The case dates back to July 2020, when Genoa Township informed the business that it would treat the Stations of the Cross trail as a church and, therefore, “would require special land use and site plan approval pursuant to the Genoa Township Zoning Ordinance.”

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While Catholic Healthcare International requested that the Township “please allow us to do the very minor things we are planning now which will not involve development of the property or building or paving,” the government entity continued to insist that the organization obtain a special permit. 

An illustration of Catholic Healthcare International's planned hospital in Genoa Township, Michigan.
An illustration of Catholic Healthcare International's planned hospital in Genoa Township, Michigan. | Screenshot: YouTube/Catholic Healthcare International

When Catholic Healthcare International constructed the trail anyway, Genoa Township ordered its removal. Although Catholic Healthcare International submitted a special land-use application seeking to build a 6,000-square-foot chapel and a driveway to go with the prayer trail, the Genoa Township Planning Board initially recommended approval of the application before revising its decision because it was not consistent with the jurisdiction’s “master plan” and once again ordered the removal of the Stations of the Cross trail. 

Genoa Township’s actions prompted Catholic Healthcare, Inc. to file a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in June 2021, alleging that the zoning ordinance violated the U.S. Constitution, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act as well as the Michigan Constitution. In December 2022, the district court denied Catholic Healthcare’s request for a preliminary injunction allowing it to restore its Stations of the Cross trail. 

The Sixth Circuit reversed the lower court’s decision, ordering “the prompt entry of a preliminary injunction allowing plaintiffs to restore the Stations of the Cross, the stone altar, and the stone mural to their prayer trail.” 

American Freedom Law Center Co-Founder and Senior Counsel Robert Muise, who represented Catholic Healthcare International in its litigation against Genoa Township, praised the ruling in a statement: “This was an important victory for religious freedom. 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,” he added. “Unfortunately, we have to fight tooth and nail for what should be basic and fundamental rights. But as this case shows, AFLC is up to the task.” 

Catholic Healthcare International took to its Facebook page to react favorably to the latest developments in the litigation: “Today, we praise our Lord. It is the beginning of the restoration of the Prayer Campus which is the Foundation of Prayer for the St. Pio Hospital, medical school, and Terri Schiavo Unit.”

“By Court order, we are now allowed to gather to pray and return the Pray, Hope & Don’t Worry Altar Table, the Our Lady of Grace Mural Wall, and the Stations of the Cross to our 40 wooded acres,” the organization continued. “Then we head to federal court for the permanent right to worship on our campus as we are called — and then? The St. Pio Hospital, Medical School and Terri Schiavo unit will be assured! It has been a painful nearly three years that slowed the complete renewal of healthcare in the USA and the world, but today we are overjoyed and thankful.”

As outlined in a document available on its website, the Stations of the Cross trail and the religious symbols constitute just part of Catholic Healthcare International’s plans for its 40-acre site in Michigan. It also hopes to build a hospital modeled after an existing Catholic hospital in Italy that will be designed to serve as a “beacon of light” in what the organization describes as “a secularized culture which continues to slip further each year from its Christian foundation.”

In addition to the Catholic hospital, the campus will include a “faithful Catholic medical school” designed to teach the next generation of physicians how to practice medicine in a way that upholds their Catholic faith. The campus will also feature a Medical Saints Trail containing “beautiful original marble statues of saints who served their lives in a healthcare ministry” and another trail telling “the life stories of saints who persevered great struggles in life.” 

The aforementioned parts of the campus will comprise Phase 1 of the project while Phase 2 will include the creation of the Terri Schiavo Home for the Brian Injured and the Padre Pio School for the Relief of Suffering, School of Osteopathic Medicine, identified as “a collaboration with a faithful Catholic university.” 

Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at:

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