BENSENVILLE, IL – More than 150 family members of people buried in St. Johannes Cemetery – an historic cemetery next to Chicago O’Hare Airport – have filed a petition to stop the City of Chicago from plowing through it to make way for new runways and terminals at O’Hare. Religious experts and lawyers believe that the outcome of this case holds widespread implications for religious rights and religious freedom across the United States.
“St. Johannes is an active cemetery, and destroying it not only desecrates holy ground but also affronts the religious beliefs of the people buried there and their living family members,” said Rev. Michael M. Kirchhoff, Sr. “Should it come to pass, this act would be nothing more than state-approved and state-sponsored religious desecration by Chicago.”
The petition – filed this week in DuPage County Circuit Court – asserts that the destruction of St. Johannes constitutes a violation of the Illinois Religious and Restoration Act and notes that “petitioners have a central religious belief that the graves of those departed and buried in the consecrated ground of St. Johannes must remain inviolate and undisturbed.” At issue is the assertion made in an earlier Seventh Circuit Court decision that Chicago could seize St. Johannes because the city’s motive is “secular.”
“In other words, if Chicago prevails in this case, municipal, state, and even the federal government anywhere in this country can seize and destroy any church, synagogue, mosque, or other religious structure to pursue a government project, as long as the motive has nothing to do with religion,” said Joe Karaganis, attorney for .John’s Church of Christ. “This is like saying the government of the District of Columbia could pave over the Washington National Cathedral to make way for a public parking lot.”
The petitioners also accuse Chicago of abusing its power and “seeking to unlawfully take more land than is necessary by concocting a second fictional development, which Chicago has no realistic or reasonable likelihood of every constructing.”
The City of Chicago seeks to seize St. Johannes through eminent domain for the O’Hare Modernization Program (OMP), an ambitious US$20 billion expansion project, which the airlines have called “ill-conceived” and “premature.” Chicago has yet to secure funding for the project, and the airlines have said they will not pay for it. In addition, aviation experts say that OMP will not alleviate the traffic jams at O’Hare but rather produce massive delays and increase costs for both consumers and airlines during and after initial construction.
“I am horrified to think that my relatives and forbearers cannot rest in peace, even though everyone knows that the O’Hare expansion cannot possibly go forward,” said John Geils, president of the Village of Bensenville, IL. “Given that Chicago will never build the overall project, Chicago’s claims that it must destroy this sacred religious cemetery are a cruel hoax. The city’s actions are deplorable and show us a side of Chicago political greed that’s even uglier than what we imagined.”
Since 1849, the historic St. Johannes Cemetery in Bensenville has been the final resting place of more than 1,300 members of St. John’s United Church of Christ and their relatives, including veterans of the Civil War, heroes of the Underground Railroad, and families that hosted President Abraham Lincoln during visits to his home state. Multiple generations of families are buried at St. Johannes, and many living members of the St. John’s congregation plan to be buried there as well.