Saturday, September 15, 2007

7th Circuit Rejects Free Exercise Challenge To O'Hare Airport Expansion

Last week, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an Illinois district court’s denial of a preliminary injunction in one of the numerous lawsuits that have been filed to prevent expansion of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. At issue in this case are challenges to Chicago’s plans to take by eminent domain a cemetery belonging to St. John’s United Church of Christ. In St. John’s United Church of Christ v. City of Chicago, (7th Cir., Sept. 13, 2007), the court, in a 2-1 decision, rejected religious freedom and other claims growing out of the Church's belief that remains buried in the cemetery must not be disturbed until Jesus raises them on the day of Resurrection.

The Court found that no free exercise violation occurred when the Illinois legislature amended the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act to exclude from its provisions Chicago’s actions in relocating cemeteries or graves as part of carrying out the O’Hare expansion. The amendment was found both to be a neutral law of general applicability and to meet the strict scrutiny test. The Court also rejected challenges under the Equal Protection Clause and RLUIPA.

Judge Ripple, dissented, saying:
I believe that the amendments to the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act … made in the O’Hare Modernization Act … violate the Free Exercise Clause, and, for that reason, must be subject to strict scrutiny. I further believe that there remain factual questions regarding whether the City of Chicago … has shown that the proposed modernization and expansion plan of O’Hare Airport is narrowly tailored to meet the compelling interest the City claims. These factual issues render dismissal inappropriate at this stage in the litigation.
Chicago Business and the Wayne (IL) Republican both report on the decision. (Also see prior posting.)