CHICAGO (CN) – A Chicago-area Christian outreach ministry will resume evangelizing in Millennium Park on Friday night after a federal judge ruled the city violated the ministry’s constitutional rights by trying to prevent it from preaching in the public space.
Jeremy Chong, a sophomore at Wheaton College and member of the Wheaton-sponsored Chicago Evangelism Team, said in a phone interview Friday there could be between 15 and 35 students joining him in Millennium Park on Friday night despite the city’s efforts to keep the ministry from preaching in the beloved park, which is popular among both locals and tourists.
Chong is one of four students at the college, roughly 25 miles west of the Windy City in Wheaton, Illinois, who sued Chicago last September after he and other members of the ministry were repeatedly prevented from handing out Christian literature and publicly preaching gospel by security staff and park supervisors.
Park staff members have variously claimed since December 2018 that the ministry was in violation of ordinances restricting solicitation and preaching religion in Millennium Park, a 24.5-acre space founded in 2004 that is adjacent to the Loop in the city’s downtown area.
Chong, who said Friday that he has been stopped from evangelizing in the park at least five times, was eventually told by park staff in April 2019 that he and the ministry were in violation of brand new rules promulgated by the city, including a rule requiring that individual speakers get clearance from at least two city departments before speaking publicly in the park.
These new rules included other provisions that divide the outdoor park up into separate “rooms.” They essentially required the ministry to move to and from different parts of the park, such as the famous mirrored “bean” statue or nearby Wrigley Square, only to be restricted from preaching there as well, according to the lawsuit.
After months of litigation, U.S. District Judge John Blakey, a Barack Obama appointee, handed down a decision Thursday granting the ministry’s demand for a preliminary injunction blocking the city from stopping its members from preaching in the park.
Blakey’s 32-page decision says that while Chicago enacted its rules to “protect the park’s aesthetic integrity…the city’s restrictions prohibit reasonable forms of expression in large areas of the park” in violation of the students’ First Amendment rights to evangelize and disseminate religious literature.
The judge also granted an injunction to four intervenors on behalf of the ministry who say they were harassed by park staff and security stopping them from collecting petition signatures.
John Mauck, the students’ counsel with the Chicago-based firm Mauck & Baker, said in a phone interview Friday that he and the students are “extremely gratified” by Blakey’s injunction.
In particular, Mauck said he was happy Blakey pointed out “three, four, five different ways it was unconstitutional” to stop the students from evangelizing. The more thorough judicial analysis makes it so “the city can’t just go back and circumvent the opinion with a quick rule change” in the same way it developed new rules blocking the students’ preaching before.
For his part, Chong said Friday that he is “very, very happy about all this,” as it has been over a year since the first time he was stopped from evangelizing and handing out literature in Millennium Park.
He said the intentions of the ministry were always magnanimous.
“The end goal of the lawsuit was primarily about evangelism and getting the gospel to people because we love them,” Chong said.
Chong compared the ministry’s mission to saving people from a collapsing building.
“If somebody believes that the Willis Tower is going to collapse in an hour, it doesn’t matter what they believe,” Chong said, adding he feels it is a calling to “run into the building and warn people that it’s going to collapse.”
Despite the city’s attempts to stop him from evangelizing in the park, Chong made sure to note that “we genuinely have no animosity against the city” or against those security personnel and park staff that tried to stop the ministry’s activities.
The city of Chicago, as well as its Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, did not offer comment on the suit or Blakey’s injunction Friday.
Chong plans to join fellow members of the ministry in Millennium Park pm Friday night, the way they like to every Friday night, at a spot he prefers next to the famous bean statue.