by Gary Taylor
Federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, September 11, 2023
Catholic Healthcare International wanted to create a prayer trail with 14 “Stations of the Cross” on a wooded 40-acre property it owns in Genoa Charter Township. No part of the prayer trail would be visible from outside the property. A few miles away, in Fillmore County Park, the Township had created a 15-station reading trail of its own, with large signs telling the tale of “Leopold the Lion.” The Township considered the prayer trail to be a church building, for which the following special use permit application items would be required:
- Completed Special Land Use Application.
- Completed Site Plan Review Application.
- $2,875.00 Special Land Use/Site Application Fee.
- Four (4) Sets of Site Plans (folded) that comply with the applicable
requirements found in the Site Plan Review Application.
- Four (4) copies of an Environmental Impact Assessment.
At considerable expense, Catholic Healthcare submitted two unsuccessful applications. Catholic Healthcare moved forward anyway, creating the prayer trail as designed. The Township demanded the removal of the Stations of the Cross, plus a stone altar and mural. Catholic Healthcare did not comply with that demand; instead, given the Township’s insistence on treating the prayer trail as a church, plaintiffs decided to expedite their longer-term plan to seek approval for an actual church building. The Township Planning Commission approved the plan for a 95-seat, 6,090 square foot church with associated parking lot, lighting and outdoor accessory structures, but the Township Board denied the request and renewed its demand that the prayer trail be removed.
The rest of the facts are unclear even to the Court of Appeals. The salient point is that at some point a group of church volunteers physically removed all the religious displays from the prayer trail, and at some later point Catholic Healthcare sought a preliminary injunction to restore the Stations of the Cross, altar, and mural, claiming that, as applied to them, the Township’s zoning ordinance violated the federal Constitution, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), and the Michigan Constitution. The district court twice denied that request, holding that its free-exercise and statutory claims are unripe.
The Sixth Circuit reversed, stating that in land-use cases, claims are “ripe” when the government has adopted a “definitive position” as to “how the regulations at issue apply to the particular land in question.” Here, the Township has uniformly insisted that Catholic Healthcare obtain a special land-use permit and has twice refused to grant a permit. Those events have “inflicted an actual, concrete injury” because the Township has actually forced them to remove the religious displays. Catholic Healthcare showed that it can likely prove that the Township has imposed a “substantial burden” on its religious exercise, and that the Township failed to use the “least restrictive means of furthering a compelling interest” as required by RLUIPA. Because Catholic Healthcare is likely to succeed on the merits of its claim under RLUIPA, the preliminary injunction requested by Catholic Healthcare should be granted.