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Wheaton College students sue city, say Millennium Park security restricted their religious activities

The students — all members of Wheaton College’s Chicago Evangelism Team — announced the lawsuit Wednesday, claiming Millennium Park’s rules “severely hinder First Amendment rights for all within a public forum.”

A view of Cloud Gate, aka “The Bean,” in Millennium Park from the 32nd floor of 8 S. Michigan Ave., Thursday, May 30, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Four Wheaton College students who were repeatedly stopped from open-air preaching and passing out evangelism literature in Millennium Park are suing the city for allegedly violating their First Amendment rights.

The students — all members of Wheaton College’s Chicago Evangelism Team, an outreach ministry sponsored by the college’s Office of Christian Outreach — announced the lawsuit Wednesday, claiming Millennium Park’s rules “severely hinder First Amendment rights for all within a public forum.”

“Although an outdoor park is the quintessential public forum, the city’s rules purportedly transform the outdoor public park into a novel spatial concept with various ‘rooms’ that prohibit freedom of speech,” the complaint states.

The students include sophomores Matt Swart, Jeremy Chong and Gabriel Emerson, as well as junior Caeden Hood. They’re represented by law firm Mauck & Baker.

According to the complaint, Swart, Hood and four other members of the Chicago Evangelist Team met at Millennium Park on Dec. 7, 2018, to pass out free religious literature, but they were stopped by park security who said the practice was not allowed.

The students complied, and then Hood started open-air preaching, only to be told that it was not allowed either, the complaint alleges. Swart explained that they were on a public sidewalk adjacent to Michigan Avenue, but the security guard said he was “just doing his job.”

The students stopped all evangelism activities until Chong arrived. The other students told Chong what happened, and he started open-air preaching, the complaint alleges. Security staff returned and asked Chong to stop, so he asked to speak with a supervisor.

Two supervisors arrived and said the students were “soliciting” the public to subscribe to their beliefs, which violates a Chicago ordinance banning solicitation on the park sidewalk between Randolph and Roosevelt streets, according to the complaint. The students weren’t told what ordinance this was and did not receive a copy of it.

Throughout the next several weeks, the students would return to the park for their practices only to be told it wasn’t allowed. In one incident, the students gathered at the Bean and were directed to other parts of the park, where they were later told their activities also weren’t allowed, the complaint alleges.

On at least one occasion, a park employee told the students they couldn’t discuss religion in the park, the students claimed.

This continued until April 5, when Chong attempted to open-air preach and pass out evangelism literature at the park and was approached by Christopher Deans, a public recreational operations manager, the complaint alleges. Deans gave Chong a set of newly enacted rules governing the park that he was apparently violating.

The rules required people to receive approval from two city departments in order to speak in the park, but the city amended its rules Aug. 26 in response to a letter from the students’ legal counsel, according to the complaint.

However, the four students allege that the newly revised rules still contain unconstitutional provisions restricting speech within a traditional public forum.

The amended set of rules eliminate the need for a permit but still “state without explanation that one visitor may not disrupt another’s objective enjoyment of amenities or performances in any way, which opens the opportunity for a situation in which essentially anyone can shut down speech or activities they deem offensive,” the students claimed.

The three-count suit accuses the city of violating the students’ freedom of speech and free exercise of religion rights under the First Amendment, as well as their right to religious freedom under the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“We desire to exercise our constitutional right to free speech through sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” Swart said in a press release about the lawsuit. “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.”

The students hope the city will declare that its rules and actions violate their rights, prohibit city workers from enforcing the rules and pay damages including the students’ court costs.

In an emailed statement, Chicago Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey said the city had not yet received the lawsuit and could not comment specifically on the case.

“However, the new rules protect First Amendment rights while also respecting the rights of patrons to use and enjoy the park,” McCaffrey said.