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St. John's United Church of Christ v. Federal Aviation Administration

December 19, 2008

ST. JOHN'S UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST, ET AL., PETITIONERS
v.
FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION AND ROBERT A. STURGELL, ADMINISTRATOR, FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION, RESPONDENTS
CITY OF CHICAGO, INTERVENOR



On Petition for Review of an Order of the Federal Aviation Administration.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Williams, Senior Circuit Judge

Argued October 23, 2008

Before: GRIFFITH and KAVANAUGH, Circuit Judges, and WILLIAMS, Senior Circuit Judge.

This is the latest installment in an ongoing battle between the City of Chicago and the Federal Aviation Administration on the one hand, and various religious and secular communities bordering O'Hare International Airport on the other. In this case, petitioners challenge the FAA's September 4, 2007 Final Agency Decision, which authorizes Chicago to impose Passenger Facility Charges ("PFCs") on passengers using O'Hare, the revenue to be used for airport improvement projects. The religious petitioners claim the FAA violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act ("RFRA"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1, arguing that one of the projects-runway construction necessitating a cemetery relocation-would "substantially burden" petitioners' exercise of religion, but would not further "a compelling governmental interest." In addition, all petitioners challenge the FAA's decision as failing to comply with statutory and regulatory requirements for approval of PFCs.

We do not reach the merits of the RFRA claim; the religious petitioners failed to establish Article III standing to raise it. Specifically, petitioners did not show a substantial probability that in the absence of PFCs Chicago would leave the cemetery alone. In other words, we cannot conclude that petitioners' success on the merits would likely lead to redress of their alleged injury.

On the merits of the secular claims, we find that the FAA's authorization of PFCs was neither arbitrary nor capricious. Contrary to petitioners' claim, the FAA's finding of "adequate justification," 49 U.S.C. § 40117(d)(3), for each of the disputed projects was not unreasonable. We therefore dismiss the RFRA claim and reject the remaining claims.

Construction of one of the runways for which Chicago received PFC authorization requires relocation of the St. Johannes religious cemetery. According to the religious petitioners, the relocation offends a "fundamental precept" of their religious beliefs, namely, "that the remains of their coreligionists in the sacred consecrated ground of St. Johannes must remain undisturbed until Jesus Christ raises up the departed on the Day of Resurrection." St. John's Br. 21. Neither the FAA nor Chicago questions the bona fides of this belief.

The three prerequisites of standing-injury, causation, and redressability-are quite familiar. See, e.g., St. John's United Church of Christ v. FAA, 520 F.3d 460, 462 (D.C. Cir. 2008). The religious petitioners' theory for satisfying them rests on the claimed essentiality of the PFCs to fund the runway project and concomitant destruction of the St. Johannes cemetery. Chicago, they say, has no other source of funding. The airlines operating at O'Hare are refusing to approve further General Airport Revenue Bonds ("GARBs"), which allow recourse only against such revenue; and the city has promised that O'Hare's modernization will be "at no cost to local or state taxpayers." St. Johns Br. at 3 & n.4; 2 Addendum 363, ¶ 31. Accordingly, the PFC authorization will cause petitioners' RFRA injury, and vacating the authorization would thwart Chicago's plans and thus redress the injury.

Even assuming arguendo that the religious petitioners could be found to have shown injury and causation, redressability is exceptionally speculative. First, Chicago's political promise to protect Chicago taxpayers from the cost of the O'Hare improvements is just that-a political promise with no legal force whatsoever.

Second, Chicago convincingly disputes petitioners' assertion that it lacks alternative sources of funds to replace the PFCs. In its brief and during oral argument, Chicago pointed out it "does not need . . . airline approval to issue bonds on which principal and interest are payable from airport revenue collected after the current airline agreements terminate in 2018," i.e., bonds not secured by the existing agreements and the associated revenues. Chicago Br. 41. In fact, it has already issued hundreds of millions of dollars worth of such bonds. See id.; Oral Arg. Tr. 35. Presumably it can do so again.

Petitioners do not dispute the point. They argue instead that bonds not secured by airline agreements would put Chicago taxpayers at risk, arguably contrary to Chicago's promise. St. John's Br., 2 Addendum 363, ¶ 31. But putting taxpayers at risk (assuming the hypothetical bonds would do so) is not the same as an unconditional city obligation. Airport revenue may well prove adequate, so that no taxpayer payment will be required. Certainly politicians frequently describe schemes that impose such risks on taxpayers as "free" or "at no cost to the taxpayer."

Finally, if we were to vacate the PFC authorization, Chicago could go back to the airlines and attempt to renegotiate. As we have already said during one of this case's many predecessors in our court, the necessity ofrenegotiations with the airlineswould"not create 'a significant increase in the likelihood' that the project would be scuttled altogether rather than merely delayed." Village of Bensenville v. FAA, 457 F.3d 52, 70 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (quoting Utah v. Evans, 536 U.S. 452, 464 (2002)). Accordingly, the religious petitioners have not shown the requisite "substantial probability" that any order of ours could redress their injury. St. John's, 520 F.3d at 462.

All petitioners challenge the PFC authorization as failing to comply with relevant statutory and regulatory requirements. Before getting to the merits, we briefly note that petitioners have standing to challenge the authorization. "Having to pay the passenger facility fee every time an officer or employee enplanes at O'Hare is a legally cognizable injury, directly traceable to the FAA's order authorizing it and redressable by a favorable ruling from us." Village of Bensenville v. FAA, 376 F.3d 1114, 1119 (D.C. Cir. 2004). As we have just explained how Chicago's alternative sources of revenue defeat redressability of the RFRA claim, one might wonder why they do not have the same effect here. After all, even in the absence of PFCs, passengers in the aggregate will likely pay this same amount through other airport charges-e.g., ones collected via the various concessions at O'Hare. See Oral Arg. Tr. 38. But courts have never required a plaintiff, forced by an agency ruling to pay a specific charge, to show that he or she will in the end escape an equivalent burden (or offsetting reduction in service). To do so would likely end up with the parties searching for-and almost certainly finding- a fee-payer who could show that the alternative would not burden him, or would not burden him as much; this would be true, for example, of an airport patron who used concessions little or not at all. Given the overwhelming probability of there being some such differently positioned fee-payer, the search would uselessly consume litigation resources.

PFCs are non-federal funds that an airport operator can receive for eligible airport-related projects. They are collected by airlines through ticket charges from their customers. See 14 C.F.R. ยง 158.3; FAA Br. 5--7. Chicago applied for PFC authorization for four projects related to various improvements at the O'Hare airport. Three projects directly involved runways-the construction of two new ones (including the runway that requires relocation of the St. Johannes cemetery) and an extension of an existing one. In the fourth project, Chicago sought reimbursement for the cost of already-acquired parcels of land surrounding O'Hare. This land was needed for runway construction, ...


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