Catholic Healthcare International v. Genoa Township

On June 2, 2021, the American Freedom Law Center (AFLC) filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Genoa Charter Township and the Township’s Ordinance Officer, alleging that the Township and its officials violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the Michigan Constitution, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) when they denied a religious organization the right to build a modest chapel (St. Pio Chapel) and prayer campus on its 40 acre property located within the Township and when they demanded that the religious organization remove all religious symbols from its property, including the Stations of the Cross and an image of Santa Maria delle Grazie (“Our Lady of Grace”).

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan on behalf of Catholic Healthcare International (CHI) and its President, Jere Palazzolo.

As noted in the lawsuit filed in federal court, the adoration chapel (St. Pio Chapel) planned for the CHI property will be a modest, 95 seat, 6,090 square foot chapel.  The parking lot will contain only 39 parking spaces.

The St. Pio Chapel will contain a tabernacle, which is a liturgical furnishing used to house the Eucharist outside of Mass.  A tabernacle provides a safe location where the Eucharist can be kept for the adoration of the faithful and for later use.  Canon Law requires a tabernacle to be in a secure location, such as the St. Pio Chapel, because it helps prevent the profanation of the Eucharist.  Without the St. Pio Chapel, CHI is unable to carry out a core function of its religious activities.

The St. Pio Chapel will be a place where people can come to pray, attend Mass, and adore Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.  The prayer campus is not a high-volume site.  It is a place where people can come and walk the trails and pray.  One trail, for example, will allow visitors to pray the Stations of the Cross.  The proposed development will retain the rural atmosphere of the area, and it will promote the quality of life.

The St. Pio Chapel will be approximately 600 feet off of the nearest public street.  CHI is preserving most of the property to allow for trails on the property and to allow people to find peace in the natural surroundings.  CHI is only building on approximately 5 acres of the 40-acre lot, and this development is largely in the open area of the site.  In other words, CHI’s proposed development will maintain the rural character of the property.

As set forth in the court filings, the Township and its Ordinance Officer had no legal basis to reject the proposed development of the St. Pio Chapel and prayer campus, and they had no legal basis to order CHI to cleanse its property of anything religious.  The United States and Michigan Constitutions and federal statutory law prohibit such acts of religious discrimination.

CASE UPDATE (July 14, 2021): We filed a First Amended Complaint.

CASE UPDATE (August 16, 2021): We filed our response to the defendants’ motion to dismiss.

CASE UPDATE (September 19, 2021): We filed an emergency motion for a TRO/Preliminary Injunction in federal court to halt the removal of the religious symbols.  On September 20, 2021, a Livingston County Circuit Court judge granted an ex parte (no hearing) TRO against CHI on behalf of Genoa Township, ordering the removal of the religious symbols on the property and banning the use of the property for “organized gatherings.”  That is, the court stripped CHI of its right to use its private property for religious worship.  On September 21, 2021, the U.S. district court denied our motion for a TRO and is deciding whether to also deny our motion for a preliminary injunction.  We then immediately filed a motion in the state circuit court to dissolve the TRO.

CASE UPDATE (September 21, 2021): We filed an emergency motion to dissolve the TRO as CHI had a religious event scheduled for September 23, 2021–an event that has been scheduled for over a year and which the Township knew about for many months.  The state court refused to dissolve the TRO, but set a hearing for September 28, 2021, on whether to dissolve the TRO or grant the Township’s request for a preliminary injunction.

CASE UPDATE (September 27, 2021): We filed our formal response to the Township’s request for a preliminary injunction in the state court.

CASE UPDATE (September 28, 2021): A hearing in state court was commenced to determine whether the court should dissolve the TRO and permit the return of the religious symbols and worship on the property or grant the preliminary injunction to prolong the restriction on religious exercise.  After several hours of testimony (and after a couple of hours of cross examination of the first witness), the Township suggested that there might be a way to resolve the issue.  The court adjourned the hearing so that the parties could discuss a path forward that would permit CHI to return the religious symbols to the property.

CASE UPDATE (September 30, 2021): On September 29, 2021, the district court formally denied our request for a preliminary injunction, thus triggering our right to appeal.  Accordingly, on September 30, 2021, we filed a notice of appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, seeking reversal of the court’s denial of our request for injunctive relief.

CASE UPDATE (October 4, 2021): We filed a motion for an injunction pending appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, seeking to return the CHI property to the status quo ante by ordering the return of the religious symbols and religious worship.