The city of Chicago has settled with four Wheaton College students who were prohibited from evangelizing in the city’s Millennium Park in 2018. The case pushed the city to change park regulations to allow evangelizing and other public speech.
The city council approved a $205,000 settlement on Wednesday, which includes $5,000 each for the students as well as attorneys’ fees for the five-year litigation.
“I’m thankful that the gospel is going to be preached in Millennium Park again,” Caeden Hood, one of the Wheaton students, told CT. Hood has graduated from Wheaton and is now studying at Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “We’re willing to work with the authorities. … That’s fine. We just don’t want the proclamation of the gospel to be hindered.”
A group of Wheaton students would go to Chicago every Friday, into the subways or on street corners, and start conversations, pass out tracts, or do street preaching. Sometimes they would go to Millennium Park, one of the most popular parks in the city with the famous “Bean” sculpture.
City rules prohibited “the making of speeches” and passing out of literature in most of the 24-acre park. In 2018, park security had asked Wheaton students passing out tracts to stop, which they did, but then in subsequent interactions security also stopped them from evangelizing. Four students—Hood, Matt Swart, Jeremy Chong, and Gabriel Emerson—consulted with a Wheaton professor who reached out to a Christian law firm, Mauck & Baker.
Attorney John Mauck had previously handled religious land use cases, especially for Black storefront churches in Chicago that were being zoned out of their spaces. He became one of the architects of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, a federal law that prohibits using land use law to infringe on religious exercise. The Wheaton students didn’t have any money to pay a lawyer with an expertise in constitutional law, but the firm took the case on its own dime.
The firm filed a federal lawsuit in 2019 alleging infringements on the students’ free speech and free exercise of religion. Other individuals who had their own confrontations with park security over collecting signatures for ballot referendums in the park joined the suit as intervenors.
Arguments played out over years and with pandemic delays.
In a 2019 evidentiary hearing in the case, Scott Stewart, executive director of the Millennium Park Foundation, testified that the park was different from other public parks because it was designed as a series of artistic “rooms”—an argument that the park was not a “public forum” where the First Amendment would apply.
In the hearing, Stewart conceded that someone might pass out the novel Moby Dick but not religious literature in the park, and another park official, Ann Hickey, said that the prohibited speech in the park depended on the “intent.”
Based on that testimony, federal judge John Robert Blakey in 2020 ruled that the park was enforcing “vague provisions in a discriminatory manner” and issued a preliminary injunction.
Blakey wrote that the park was clearly a public forum protected by the First Amendment: “It is free, open to the public, and serves as a public thoroughfare.”
“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,” he wrote. “The law precludes this absurd result.”
In 2020 the city put out new park rules, but the court said those rules may still “fall short of constitutional requirements.” The rules now clarify that they do not “restrict First Amendment activity on the sidewalks throughout the park.”
Mauck told CT that the students had an earlier opportunity to settle, but one condition of the settlement was no evangelism in the vicinity of the Bean. The students refused since the Bean is such an important gathering place.
The compromise they agreed to with the city was that evangelizing near the Bean was allowed, but not handing out literature. And in areas where literature handouts are allowed, people can offer literature once but not again.
“We live in the real world. We have to compromise. But I don’t feel Scripture authorizes us to give away other people’s rights to hear the gospel,” Mauck said.
Street preaching is culturally uncomfortable in the US but not in many other parts of the world, say those who do evangelism.
Public evangelism “causes us to recoil in a way that it would never have done five, 10, 20 years ago,” said R. York Moore in a 2019 interview with CT about the students’ case. At the time, Moore was the national evangelist for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA.
“As the social perception and policy restrictions continue to push proclamation out of view, Christians will eventually have no choice but to pay a higher price for the proclamation—either as lawbreakers or subversives,” Moore said.
Hood, one of the Wheaton students, said he had “fooled around” his freshman year at Wheaton but decided to “pursue God whole-heartedly” his sophomore year and joined the evangelism team. He started reading the Bible more often.
“I started to see the way the Bible talks about the Word of God,” he said. “Jesus says, What you’ve heard from me, proclaim from the housetops. Jeremiah talks about hearing from God, and he can’t hold it in anymore. He said it’s like a fire in his bones. … Stuff like that gave me a sense of confidence.” He had never preached out in public like that before, and it was “a little uncomfortable … I tend to struggle with attention.” But he grew more comfortable over time.
The case brought public attention to the students, too. Mauck had warned the students, as he does with most clients, that the city might drag the case out for years as a legal strategy, and asked if they would “hang in there” as plaintiffs.
“Usually they don’t understand how that can wear on them and cause anxiety,” Mauck said. “In this case it helps that we have four [Christian] brothers who know each other and can encourage each other.”
The case did drag out for years, but the four stuck with it. Two of the others are in seminary at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, according to Hood. Hood still evangelizes in Florida where he is in seminary, and says the others have been evangelizing where they live now.
“That’s all that matters to me at the end of the day,” he said.