By Bethany Peterson
Four Wheaton students are suing the city of Chicago for infringing on their constitutional right to preach openly in Millennium Park. During a press conference on Wednesday morning in front of the iconic bean-shaped statue, sophomores Jeremy Chong, Gabriel Emerson and Matt Swart and junior Caeden Hood gathered around their attorney, John Mauck, who announced their intention to seek a preliminary injunction to prevent the city from enforcing new ordinances restricting “free speech” in the park.
Signed into effect by Commissioner Mark Kelly in April of 2019, these ordinances divide Millennium Park into eleven outdoor “rooms.” The ordinances also prohibit the “making of speeches and passing out of written communications” in all but one room — “Wrigley Square and Millennium Park Monument” — and public sidewalks. “It seems as if they’re trying to push us out of the park by putting us in the corner of the park the least people are,” said Hood.
These restrictions are part of an ongoing conflict between the students and the city that began last December.
As members of the Chicago Evangelism Team (CET), Chong, Emerson, Swart and Hood, along with other Wheaton students, travel to the city every Friday night to preach in public areas, such as on sidewalks, in parks and outside fastfood restaurants. According to Swart, in early December 2018, he and Hood were preaching and passing out “gospel tracts” in Millennium Park when park authorities approached them and asked them to stop distributing tracts. The students did so, but Hood continued “street preaching.” Again, security staff asked the students to stop. Swart questioned the decision, telling staff it was a public sidewalk. After security continued to request that the students stop preaching, the students ceased all activities.
A few minutes after this interaction, Chong, who co-leads CET with sophomore Emily Perkins, arrived. Upon hearing what had transpired, he decided to continue preaching in the area because he believed the group had every right to do so. Security approached Chong and asked him to stop, as they had with Swart and Hood. Chong requested to speak with a supervisor, who told the students their actions counted as “solicitation” which was prohibited in that area of the park. The students then left the park, according to Swart.
After returning to campus, Swart decided to reach out to Director of the Wheaton Center for Faith, Politics and Economics David Iglesias, who advised the students to connect with Mauck and Baker, LLC law firm, which specializes in religious liberties law. “My initial reaction was that this was a clear case of violating their First Amendment rights to ‘free exercise of speech’ and ‘freedom of religion.’ In my view, it was not even a close call,” Iglesias told the Record in an email.
The law firm, in communication with the four students, sent a letter to the city requesting that they change the park’s rules on the grounds that what the CET was doing was not solicitation and the students had the right to free speech. The city denied the request, according to Mauck.
CET students avoided Millennium Park for a few weeks while waiting for the city’s response. When they resumed meeting in the park, the students were again approached on multiple occasions by park authorities who asked them to either stop evangelistic activities or leave the park. According to the complaint filed by Mauck, on April 5, 2019, the Public Recreational Operations Manager Christopher Deans gave students a set of updated park rules, which included the requirement for a permit to make speeches in the park. Afterward, the students chose to gather elsewhere, rather than in the park, to continue preaching.
Mauck sent another letter to the city highlighting the sections of the park rules that appeared unconstitutional. The city chose to amend the rules in August 2019, dropping the permit requirements but maintaining restrictions on giving speeches and passing out written religious literature in 10 of the 11 rooms.
The Chicago Tribune reported Wednesday that the city could not comment until they received the suit officially, but Law Department Spokesman Bill McCaffrey told the Tribune in an email that “the new rules protect First Amendment rights while also respecting the right of patrons to use and enjoy the park.”
In contrast, according to Iglesias, the creation of rooms to limit freedom of speech and religion in the park is unconstitutional. “Either we have the right or we don’t. This artificial distinction will not pass judicial scrutiny,” he said.
“These rooms are made out of thin air,” Mauck said during the press conference. “I’m not sure where the walls are. Be careful as you walk around. You might bump into them.”
A statement on the CET Facebook page describes the team’s mission “to love God and in return to share the overwhelming love they have for him through conversation, relationships and the proclamation of his name.” Although the team does evangelize in other areas in Chicago, they often gather in Millennium Park because of its central location and opportunities to reach tourists. On a typical Friday night, the team meets for prayer in Goldstar Chapel at 4:15 p.m., eats dinner together at 5 p.m. in Saga and then takes the 5:57 p.m. train to Chicago.
When they get off the train, the team gathers outside Target on State Street and pray together before splitting into smaller groups. Chong said they try to pair experienced and inexperienced attendees together. Each group does a variety of evangelistic activities. According to Swart, common evangelistic approaches are open-air preaching, talking with people in the train station, offering prayer and passing out gospel materials. The group meets again at 9:10 p.m. and takes the 9:40 p.m. train back to College Avenue at the end of the night.
Assistant Director of the Office of Christian Outreach (OCO) Jared Falkanger, who oversees the group as a ministry in the Christian Service Council, also attended the press conference to support the students. The OCO provides funding for tickets to the city, but Chong usually personally buys gospel tracts, like “The Only Solution to the Greatest Problem” by John MacArthur, which students were passing out when park authorities first approached them. According to Falkanger, in his previous four years at Wheaton the CET focused on speaking with the homeless and starting one-onone conversations, but this year the group’s vision shifted toward more “open-air” preaching and tract distribution, largely due to Chong’s vision for the group.
Chong said he has seen a recent trend in evangelism away from open-air preaching and other kinds of street evangelism toward what he called “friendship-only evangelism.” Chong explained, “Relational evangelism — having a long-term friendship where you share the gospel — should just be a given. But on top of that, there are so many people we meet who would never walk inside of a church and who would never be friends with a Christian. We need to go to them.”
There are risks that come with this type of evangelism. The four students said they often receive pushback when preaching on Friday nights. “It shouldn’t be surprising,” said Emerson. “The Bible says the gospel is offensive.”
The students said their initial desire was not to take such a drastic step in pushing back against the city’s ordinances. “We did not want to have a lawsuit here. All we wanted was to share the gospel in the park. The city compelled us to by refusing to change the rules,” Swart said.
The students also said that most of the initiative was taken by their law firm, which determined that a resolution was not possible without suing. “We’ve followed their directive and followed their example,” said Swart.
The lawsuit’s results will affect more than just evangelistic activities.
Emerson said his hope is that people recognize “this isn’t just a Wheaton College evangelism issue, this is a free speech issue for everyone. If anyone wants to say anything to anyone that is mildly controversial, they .”
The students want “any citizen in Chicago in any area use the park as it ought to be used, as a public forum for free speech as protected specifically by the First Amendment,” Swart said.
According to Director of Wheaton Media Relations LaTonya Taylor, “While Wheaton College is not a party to the complaint filed by four of our students against the city of Chicago … we are strongly supportive of free speech and the right to bear verbal witness to the Christian faith.”
Mauck hopes the case will appear before a judge sometime in the next week. In the meantime, the CET continues in their mission to share the gospel on the streets and park sidewalks of Chicago.