CHICAGO - A federal appeals court Friday temporarily blocked the city of Chicago from taking over a suburban cemetery in the path of the planned $15 billion expansion of O'Hare International Airport.
The injunction by a three-judge panel of the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals comes less than three weeks after U.S .District Judge David Coar in Chicago dismissed a lawsuit filed by attorneys for the cemetery and two suburbs affected by the expansion.
The O'Hare project is aimed at reducing flight delays at one of the nation's busiest airports by reconfiguring runways, adding others and building another terminal.
Expansion opponents have said the project is not worth the cost, will be too damaging to nearby communities and that relocating graves at St. Johannes Cemetery to clear space for a new runway violates owners' constitutional religious rights.
Friday's injunction means the city can't receive the legal title to the cemetery until the three-judge panel makes a permanent ruling on an appeal filed Nov. 23 by attorneys for cemetery. If the city is granted the title it can develop that property.
Attorneys for Bensenville and Elk Grove Village also have appealed Coar's Nov. 16 ruling that allowed the city to resume buying homes and businesses in the two suburbs.
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A spokeswoman for the city's legal department, Jennifer Hoyle, said Friday's ruling will have little e0ffect on the expansion plans. City officials can still survey property at the cemetery and talk to plot owners, she said.
"This preserves the status quo," Hoyle said. "We think it will be resolved in a quick manner and in the city's favor."
The airport expansion would force about 2,600 people and nearly 200 businesses in the Chicago suburbs of Bensenville, Des Plaines and Elk Grove Village to relocate.
"This is a huge step in the right direction," said Jared Leland, an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based firm representing the cemetery. "It's another level of protection for us and another day of survival."
According to Friday's ruling, attorneys from the city and cemetery must file all arguments on or before Jan. 3.
In a separate case, the city has agreed not to disturb any graves at the cemetery until a federal appeals court in Washington rules on another lawsuit opponents have filed against the Federal Aviation Administration.
The FAA has said it will give the city $300 million for the expansion it contends will reduce delays by 68 percent if the work ends on schedule in 2013.