Jessica Mathews /

The Genoa Township Board met Monday night to discuss a recent federal appeals court ruling in a zoning fight with a Catholic group over a prayer campus.

The board took no action following a closed session regarding trial or settlement strategy in the case against Missouri-based Catholic Healthcare International or CHI.

CHI and its President Jere Palazzolo filed suit against the Township and Ordinance Officer Sharon Stone after a special use permit was denied. It challenged the application of zoning ordinances to its 40-acre property at 3280 Chilson Road, south of Crooked Lake Road. CHI has been seeking to display religiously symbolic structures, including a prayer trail, and host organized gatherings.

The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals issued a 3-0 opinion reversing former lower court rulings and granted CHI’s request for an injunction in part. The ruling would permit CHI to display the Stations of the Cross, a mural wall with the image of Our Lady of Grace, and an altar. CHI said the court also affirmed that the Township could not prevent it from using the property for “organized gatherings”.

CHI had moved for a preliminary injunction, which a lower court denied with respect to the religious displays and granted with respect to the prohibition on organized gatherings. Both CHI and the Township then cross-appealed.

The opinion stated CHI showed they were likely to succeed on their Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act or RLUIPA claims because they showed they could likely prove the township has imposed a substantial burden on CHI’s religious exercise.

Lengthy meetings were held in 2021, with the majority of residents and neighbors opposed to the initial project, and revised plans due to impact, noise, and traffic among other reasons.

Township Manager Kelly VanMarter previously told WHMI she was very disappointed in the ruling and concerned with the land use and public safety implications of the decision.

In December of 2021, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to not hear the request based off of township zoning ordinance as there was not substantial new evidence to support a change in intent of the application, nor proof of changed conditions from the reasons noted in the township board denial on May 3rd. Commissioners stated they didn’t feel the removal of a chapel was enough change to support rehearing the request and the township board’s prior points for denial stood.

The proposal was for various outdoor uses including Stations of the Cross, a mural wall with an altar, prayer trails, religious landscape and garden statutes, related driveways, and a 39-space parking lot. That proposal included the removal of a controversial chapel building, which was said to be basically the only change and use was still similar in intensity. The displays were ordered removed from the site as they were put up without proper township approvals.

Resident Leslie Monet spoke during call to the public and said she lives one house away from the CHI site. She commented that what CHI says and what is on their website is much different than what they present to the board. Monet said she is very concerned about the project, along with her family and neighbors - and she knows what traffic has been like when CHI hosts activities. She said there is no safe parking along Chilson Road and 39 parking spots on the site are not enough to support their big activities, adding if the township has to approve something then conditions need to be put in place.

Another resident who spoke urged the board to “continue the fight” and take it to the Supreme Court.

Supervisor Bill Rogers declined to comment on the pending litigation following the closed session but did say it is still an “open issue”.

CHI is being represented by the American Freedom Law Center. AFLC Co-Founder and Senior Counsel Robert Muise commented “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. 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”.

CHI is still pursuing separate litigation in U.S. District Court in Detroit to construct the chapel, which had been put on hold during the appeals. The St. Pio Eucharistic Adoration Chapel is intended to serve as an international pilgrimage site.

Records show CHI filed a motion on Monday requesting that the Court reverse its order dismissing the plaintiffs’ claims “arising from the prohibition and removal of CHI’s religiously symbolic structures from the Property” on ripeness grounds, thereby permitting these claims to proceed to the merits”.