Chicago Tells Preachers to Park It
September 26, 2019
Millions of people walk through Chicago's Millennium Park every year, but only four of them seemed to catch the city's attention. They were students from Wheaton College, Christians who decided to spread the gospel at one of the biggest tourist attractions in America. It never occurred to these undergrads that they wouldn't be allowed to speak about their faith in public. So now, months later, they're in court -- sharing the good news of the First Amendment with a city that desperately needs it.
"We're passing out gospel tracts," sophomore Matt Swart explained to listeners on "Washington Watch" Wednesday. "[It was just] a simple three-fold pamphlet with information about the gospel -- that sinners can be reconciled to God with faith in Jesus Christ and repentance. [We were] passing those out to anyone who would take it and having conversations when we were approached." That is, until the park's security team saw what was happening and stopped them, explaining that they couldn't preach or hand out religious literature.
"I thought was a little strange," Matt says. "We went out to the front sidewalk and sat there for a minute until Kate and one of my fellow plaintiffs decided: this is wrong. They can't do this." So, some of them went back out and started evangelizing. Security stopped them again. Week after week, they went back, but "continued to face hostility and opposition from park employees." Incredibly, at least one official said they couldn't talk about their religion in public. They went back to campus, Matt remembers, and it just didn't sit right. They reached out to a law professor at school, and he agreed: they absolutely had the constitutional right to street preach.
So together, the students agreed -- they would fight. They connected with a religious freedom law firm called Mauck & Baker and started knocking on the doors of park management. "We went back and forth with the city for a while, asking them to change their rules." Well, they changed their rules all right. They decided, in an absurd new policy, to divide the park into 11 imaginary rooms. And, give Chicago points for creativity -- only one of those "rooms" allowed open conversations about faith. "It's a public park!" Matt's attorney John Mauck said incredulously! "It's open -- the sun shines. It rains, there's grass, people are walking, people are chatting, people are picnicking. That's not rooms." That, Matt and John explained, was the final straw. They tried to change the rules civilly. They sent letters and had meetings. Ultimately, the only option was to take the city to court.
"There's an important spiritual point here," John said. "The Lord tells us to make every effort to live at peace with all men -- so far it depends on you. And it also says, 'Don't go to court, settle quickly on your way to court.' So we have tried both of those. And we always do that because we want to be peacemakers. But when it comes down to the bottom line, [which is] 'You can't preach the gospel, I'm sorry. We've amended the rules again, and now it's prohibited in all these spaces. And like you say, Sarah, it is a huge tourist attraction. So people from all over the world are going there -- and it's the perfect place to share the love of Jesus."
In the end, he pointed out, there was more at stake than just four Christians in a park. This was about protecting evangelism in America and saving souls. "We need to protect civil liberties vigorously so we don't get into a situation like they have in Hong Kong where the rights are gradually taken away and then you have civil unrest," he pointed out. "We want to hold the line here for the gospel and for everybody else."
This story, like many others, is about so much more than just four students at a park. It's about our constitutional freedoms -- and, most importantly, our ability to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. I've heard pastors and other Christian leaders say they don't want to get involved in "politics" because they just want to preach the gospel. I think we are seeing what happens when we neglect our responsibility as Christians to be involved in "politics." We lose our ability to share the gospel. Thank goodness for brave young people, who God is able to work through to accomplish things for His kingdom. Hear from some of them at this year's Values Voter Summit at a special panel of college students called "No Fear: Real Stories from a Generation Standing for Truth."
Tony Perkins's Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.