Goodbye St. Johannes?

I heard today that the U.S. Supreme Court has chosen not to hear the case of St. John’s Church vs. City of Chicago. Why do I care? Well, The suit is all about tiny St. Johannes Cemetery on the grounds of O’Hare Airport.

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When St. Johannes United Church of Christ was founded in 1849, there was no O’Hare, nor was the area part of Chicago (it was in Bensenville, DuPage County). One hundred years later, the City of Chicago bought and annexed Orchard Field. The city renamed it O’Hare Field and proceeded to buy up the property around the field so that they could expand the airport. St. Johannes was in the way and after considerable wrangling, the church building was moved. Cemeteries aren’t quite so easy to move, though, so the church cemetery stayed put. The church continued to maintain the cemetery and all was well until the turn of the 21st century, when the city decided it was time to expand O’Hare. St. Johannes Cemetery lies directly in the path of the new runway, so the battle was on anew.

The St. Johannes Cemetery Alliance (SJCA) has been fighting the City of Chicago by every means available to stop the expansion and protect the cemetery. A few avenues remain, but taking this case to the Supreme Court was in many ways the last best hope to protect the cemetery. As much as I hate to say it, I saw this coming. The SJCA used a first amendment argument; that is, they argued that the City of Chicago was infringing the church’s religious freedom. This argument always rang false to me. The City just wants the land, no matter who is the owner. The appeals court found –and in its decision not to hear the case, the Supreme Court affirmed–exactly that: that the City’s motivations are strictly secular. The remaining case involves the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which in my non-lawyerly opinion is a slightly better case. We’ll see, but I have a feeling that what Mayor Daley wants, Mayor Daley is going to get.

So, again, why is it that I am interested in this case. It turns out some of my ancestors are buried in St. Johannes. Well, not exactly my ancestors, but my relations, anyway. The Frantzen/Franzen line of my family settled in Bensenville when they arrived from Germany in the first half of the 19th century. There are quite a few Frantzens in St. Johannes.

More information on the history of St. Johannes here. The Chicago Tribune has the latest on the case.