City of Chicago officials are on notice that the First Amendment still applies to free speech and religious expression—including the right to share one’s Christian beliefs in a public space.
A federal judge in Chicago granted a preliminary injunction that allows students from nearby Wheaton College to evangelize in the popular downtown Millennium Park. A status hearing is scheduled for Wednesday to determine if the city plans to appeal, but U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey made clear in a 32-page opinion that the city violated the free speech of the students by attempting to restrict their activities to a small space in the 24-acre park.
“This is great news!” wrote Franklin Graham on Facebook. “… These young people have a heart and a passion for sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ, and I appreciate their stand, their hard work, and their tenacity! Jeremy [Chong] said the goal of the lawsuit was about ‘getting the Gospel to people because we love them.’ He compared their mission to warning people of a collapsing building—and he’s right.
“The need for evangelism is urgent and the stakes are eternal. Thank you, Wheaton College for sponsoring this ministry. Let’s pray for Jeremy and the other students who will be ministering in Millennium Park—and beyond!”
The students filed a federal complaint against the city after one of them was approached by park security on March 17, 2019, near The Bean, an iconic sculpture in downtown Chicago, and told to stop distributing Gospel pamphlets and engaging in spiritual conversations with park visitors. The students with Wheaton’s Chicago Evangelism Team—Matt Swart, Jeremy Chong, Gabriel Emerson, and Caeden Hood—insisted their interactions with others were always polite and non-disruptive. But that didn’t keep park security from attempting to stop them on multiple occasions.
The city had tried dividing the park into “rooms,” leaving a small area where park visitors could engage in religious speech, in an attempt to resolve the issue. The religious liberty law firm Mauck & Baker filed the complaint on behalf of the students. They were joined by another group who claimed the city had tried to prevent them from distributing political petitions in several high-traffic areas of the park.
Blakey wrote in his opinion: “If nothing else at all … the First Amendment protects religious speech … and the freedom to petition. Indeed, such speech lies at the very heart of the First Amendment.”
Further, the judge said, the students’ activities met the government’s standard for protected speech while the city’s attempt to exclude their speech did not meet the standard of a “compelling government interest.”
“Protecting First Amendment freedom always serves the public interest,” Blakey wrote.
Matt Swart, a plaintiff and sophomore at Wheaton College, told the Chicago Tribune after the ruling, “We’re very excited to see what God has done and that we’re able to share the Gospel in the park.”
The paper reported that Swart and 14 other Wheaton students returned to Millennium Park for the first time in a year to share their faith on the Friday following the ruling.