In 1983, Cleveland’s Department of Port Control entered into a 20-year lease with the Catholic Diocese that allowed the Diocese to rent space for a chapel inside Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. The agreement was controversial for two reasons — the rent that the Diocese would pay was lower than that paid by other establishments in the airport, and the chapel would be heavily adorned with Catholic symbols. City officials defended their actions by saying that the space in which the chapel would be located had received no interest from other prospective tenants. They also argued that the chapel could easily be adapted to accommodate all faiths.
Several Cleveland taxpayers, including Jane Hawley, filed suit in an attempt to block the lease, arguing that the reduced rent acted as a subsidy that provided government advancement and aid to the Catholic faith, violating separation of church and state.
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio ruled in favor of the City. In 1994, on appeal, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling. The Sixth Circuit stated that the chapel fulfills a secular purpose because it accommodates “the religious needs of travelers” and provides them “with a place for rest and comfort.” The Sixth Circuit also noted that “because a reasonable observer would not conclude that the city endorses religion by allowing the diocese to maintain the chapel, the chapel's lease and its authorizing ordinance do not constitute an endorsement of religion, and thus their primary effect is one that neither advances nor inhibits religion.”
The U.S. Supreme Court subsequently refused to hear the case.
ACLU of Ohio attorneys Gail White and Gordon Beggs initially represented the taxpayers; Kevin O’Neill later argued the case before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1994. Joshua Kancelbaum, William Marshall, and Lester Potash also assisted on the case.