Four Evangelical Christian students from Wheaton College outside Chicago were prevented from engaging in open air evangelizing and dissemination of religious literature at Millennium Park, a beloved public park and major tourist attraction for the city of Chicago, by the park’s security team. They filed suit against the city in September 2019, and last week a judge ruled in their favor, stating that they had a First Amendment right to evangelize.
Matt Swart, Jeremy Chong, Gabriel Emerson, and Caeden Hood sued the city of Chicago, arguing the city’s restrictions violated their First Amendment rights to evangelize and disseminate religious literature, which they had done every Friday.
The document with the judge’s decision states, “The City views the Park as a unique space— one that showcases world-class art, music, architecture, and landscape design. Accordingly, the City enacted restrictions it claims protects the Park’s aesthetic integrity.”
According to the court, Scott Stewart, Executive Director of the Millennium Park Foundation stated that the park consisted not of a single, undifferentiated space, but rather of several subspaces (or “rooms”) differentiated by, among other things, lines of trees or other foliage, changes in topography, and changes in the color of walking surfaces.
The court delineated how the students had been harassed:
In December 2018, Swart, Hood, and other members of the Chicago Evangelism Team gathered at the Park to engage in open air evangelism and distribute religious literature. Park security approached Plaintiffs and informed them they were prohibited from disseminating literature. The students ceased distributing their literature, and then Hood began to evangelize.
After a few minutes, Park security again approached Plaintiffs and informed them they had to stop evangelizing. At that point, Swart informed security staff that because they were on a public sidewalk, they had the right to continue speaking. A security guard insisted he was “just doing his job,” and informed the students they could speak to his supervisor. Based on the guard’s intervention, these students then ceased their evangelism activities.
About ten minutes later, Chong arrived at the Park, and the students informed him what had just transpired. Chong nonetheless began evangelizing. Park security then approached Chong and directed him to stop. Chong asked to speak with a supervisor. Soon thereafter, two Park supervisors arrived and informed the students that they were in violation of a Chicago ordinance prohibiting solicitation on the sidewalk between Randolph and Roosevelt Streets. Members of the Chicago Evangelism Team returned to the Park in the subsequent weeks; they again attempted to evangelize but Park security guards prohibited them from doing so.
On one occasion, Park employees prohibited them from evangelizing near the Bean. On another occasion, a Park employee informed them they could not discuss religion in the Park and ordered them to leave the Park if they wished to speak about religion. On April 5, 2019, Chong again went to the Park to evangelize; at that time, Public Recreational Operations Manager Christopher Deans approached Chong and provided him with newly enacted rules governing the Park. Deans informed Chong that the rules restricted Chong’s activities.
The judge concluded, “In sum, the City may not by ‘its own ipse dixit’ destroy the public forum status of parks. Although the City insists a curated design divests the Park of its traditional public nature, this Court cannot accept this characterization based upon the facts here. Indeed, if a ‘curated design’ were enough to transform the nature of the forum, any park with a statue could lose its First Amendment protections. The law precludes this absurd result.”
After the ruling had been issued, Chong stated, “[This is about] getting the gospel to people because we love them. If somebody believes that the Willis Tower is going to collapse in an hour, it doesn’t matter what they believe,” adding that it was a calling to “run into the building and warn people that it’s going to collapse.”