Four students from the Christian Wheaton College in suburban Chicago are suing their city for denying them the right to preach their religion to tourists at Chicago’s most famous park.
The members of the Chicago Evangelism Team claim security stymied them from sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ at the popular Millennium Park. Millennium Park is a 24-acre downtown venue that hosts everything from concerts and art shows to nature walks. It is also home to the Cloud Gate, otherwise known as ‘the Bean’: a must-see tourist destination in the Windy City.
The students say the city violated their First Amendment rights.
The four students in question first attempted to evangelize and distribute Christian literature at Millennium Park last December. They were told to relocate to a different part of the park. Then security staff informed them they could not evangelize in the new location, either. The students contested. A pair of supervisors insisted they were “soliciting” their beliefs to the public. They then said the students were effectively violating city rules prohibiting such behavior on the park sidewalk.
They returned the next week and a similar scenario played out. According to the complaint, this cat-and-mouse game continued for weeks.
“Park employees… prohibited the Students’ activities near ‘the Bean’ directing them to other parts of the Park, only later to prohibit them from those parts of the Park as well. On at least one occasion, a Park employee informed the Students that they could not discuss religion in the Park and ordered the Students to leave the Park if they wanted to talk about religion.”
It all came to a head in April of this year. Recreational operations manager Christopher B. Deans informed the students that the city had enacted new municipal rules. These new rules require all speakers receive licensed approval from two city departments before they may speak at the park.
The city eventually dropped the licensing requirement months later following a letter of objection from the students’ legal counsel. However, the ban on passing out written communications remains in place for most of the park. This effectively pushed the students to the park’s outer edges, where they wouldn’t ‘interfere’ with public enjoyment.
First Amendment Infringement
“For the sake of every citizen who desires to make use of the rights our forefathers bled for, we pray that the City of Chicago amends their unconstitutional code,” declared sophomore Matt Swart. He, along with three other members of the Chicago Evangelism Team, are represented by religious freedom law firm Mauck & Baker, LLC. They’ve defended churches, businesses, and individuals in similar First Amendment predicaments.
The law group is now seeking a permanent injunction against the rules governing behavior at Millenium Park in federal court; particularly the ban on conduct that “disrupts another visitor’s peaceful enjoyment of performance or amenity in the Park.”
Lawyers claim the city is simply using the vague notion of public interference to censor speech it doesn’t like. They note that their clients don’t use bullhorns or interrupt scheduled events. “With street preaching, you are not going to be drowning anybody out because there are hundreds of people coming and going,” explains head attorney John Mauck. “When you evangelize, you want to go where the people are. We need to protect civil liberties vigorously so we don’t get into a situation as they have in Hong Kong where the rights are gradually taken away and then you have civil unrest. We want to hold the line here for the Gospel and for everybody else.”
The students say they simply want to spread their belief in a non-disruptive way at one of their city’s most notable locations. One of the students, Jeremy Chong, said that “An essential part of Christianity is sharing the gospel… We are there to share the greatest news of all time, which is that sinful people can be saved, and can be reconciled to God by faith in Jesus who died on the cross to save all sinners.”
Meanwhile, the city has clear rules, hastily assembled as they are. And evangelizing for your deity and passing out literature to passers-by is explicitly prohibited. The city says they just want to “[respect] the rights of patrons to use and enjoy the park.”
Are these rules against public disruption justified? Where, exactly, is the intersection between the First Amendment rights of the students and the rights of the city to manage conduct at one of their largest tourist attractions?