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Michigan Catholic Group wins legal fight to display Stations of the Cross prayer trail

by Premier Journalist

A Catholic group will be allowed to post religious displays along a privately owned “prayer trail” depicting the last day of Jesus's life on earth, after a zoning fight with a local government in southeastern Michigan went to a federal appeals court.

The court ruled unanimously in favor of the group, saying Genoa Township in Livingston County could be violating the rights of Missouri-based Catholic Healthcare International, which controls the 40-acre land where the prayer trail is located.

Stations of the Cross exhibits are often used during Lent, in Catholic and High Anglican traditions, to help worshippers remember and relate to Jesus's journey to the cross on Good Friday. 

Local government had said that a special-use permit was needed because the project was the equivalent of a church building.

The Catholic group objected but ultimately responded with a plan for a chapel and trail.  They spent thousands of dollars on an application, only to see it rejected by the council.

The Stations of the Cross stayed in place however, until local government persuaded a state judge to order removal in 2021.

Catholic Healthcare then 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.

The 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.

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