By Tennyson Bush
After a temporary judicial ruling preventing the city of Chicago from limiting free speech in Millennium Park, Wheaton’s Chicago Evangelism Team (CET) returned to the park on Friday, Feb. 21. Judge John Robert Blakey ruled in a 32-page opinion memorandum that “the City’s restrictions prohibit reasonable forms of expression in large areas of the Park.”
A status hearing is scheduled for March 4 to discuss how the case will proceed. Though the students have won the right to return to Millennium Park to preach, the case is not yet over, and Judge Blakey’s decision to prohibit Chicago from enforcing speech restrictions will only last until a final judgement is made at the conclusion of the case.
The case began last year when four members of CET — sophomores Jeremy Chong, Gabe Emerson, Matt Swart and junior Caeden Hood — filed a lawsuit against the city of Chicago after the city prohibited them from openair preaching and distributing evangelism tracts in 10 out of the park’s 11 sections. This limitation was set in place to protect visitor enjoyment of the park.
Soon after the students submitted their complaint, additional parties brought cases against the City. On Oct. 10, former Illinois Governor Pat Quinn filed an intervention on behalf of four individuals who were stopped from distributing referendum petitions to visitors in the park. A few weeks later, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois got involved, sending a cease and desist letter to the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, the government body responsible for crafting the park restrictions.
Swart, a member of CET, described the additional complaints as being an example of solidarity between organizations that otherwise share different ideologies. “These are people we do not see eye to eye with on many issues, but we can all come together in defense of free speech,” he said.
During his cross-examination by an attorney representing the city of Chicago, Chong was asked to describe the practice of open-air preaching, and he was able to share the gospel. “The Holy Spirit gave me such peace, loosened my tongue, I was able to speak calmly, unafraid,” Chong said about the experience. “We don’t have to be afraid of anyone, any place. The Spirit has continually broken more and more chains of the fear of man through this experience, the fear of human opinion, the fear of offending people, the need to please people. And that’s been so rewarding.”
Following months of legal proceedings, Judge Blakey granted the preliminary injunction against Chicago on Feb. 20, a move that effectively suspends the city’s speech restrictions for the duration of the judicial proceedings.
“This is a ruling that benefits anyone who wishes to exercise their First Amendment rights in a traditional public forum, regardless of the political, religious or ideological content of their message,” the students’ attorney John Mauck said.
CET returned to Millennium Park the day following the release of the injunction, where Chong preached from a step ladder across from the iconic Bean sculpture.
“We were very excited to preach the gospel again in Millennium Park,” Chong said. “I have to be consistent with my beliefs. Right now, people are on their way to hell and I know Jesus saves, and I want to get the word out.”
Though the case is not yet over, Swart is pleased with the judge’s decision, and encourages Wheaton students to find opportunities to share their faith. “We make the gospel real to ourselves when we tell other people about it,” he said.
Chong shares Swart’s excitement at the progress in the case, but notes that he has perceived some pushback from the campus community. “We’re aware that people get offended by what we do. We’re aware that open air preaching is not the politically correct way to do evangelism, but we believe it’s what God wants us to be doing.”