A federal judge cleared the way — at least for now — for people to evangelize, circulate petitions and engage in other forms of expression in Millennium Park.

In a preliminary injunction issued last week, U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey barred the city of Chicago from enforcing one rule prohibiting conduct that “objectively interferes” with others’ enjoyment of the park’s art and another rule limiting speech-making and the distribution of written materials to a certain area of the park.

The plaintiffs and intervenors in the lawsuit against the city are likely to prevail on the merits of their contention that the rules violate the First Amendment, Blakey held in a written opinion accompanying the injunction.

Blakey acknowledged the city considers the park to be the site of “world-class art, music, architecture and landscape design” and the rules to be measures needed to protect the park’s “aesthetic integrity.”

“Despite these good intentions, however, the [c]ity’s restrictions prohibit reasonable forms of expression in large areas of the park,” Blakey wrote.

He set a status hearing in the case for March 4.

Four Wheaton College students who are members of a Christian outreach ministry called the Chicago Evangelism Team sued the city in September 2019.

On Fridays, the students distribute religious literature and engage in “open air” evangelizing, or standing up in public and preaching the gospel.

The students say the park — particularly the area around the Cloud Gate sculpture, which is nicknamed The Bean — is the most effective site to share their message because of the large number of people present.

Beginning in December 2018, park security personnel approached team members several times when they were passing out literature or evangelizing and told them their activities were prohibited, the students allege.

One time, they allege, a park employee told team members they were not allowed to discuss religion in the park.

In April 2019, the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events enacted rules governing the park. The department amended the rules four months later.

Rules in the category of “disruptive conduct” include P(1), which bars conduct that threatens public safety or that may damage park property as well as conduct that “objectively interferes” with others’ enjoyment of the art.

P(3), another rule in that category, limits speech-making and the distribution of written communications to one of the park’s 11 sections and the sidewalks in and around the park. The section where these activities are allowed is in the northwest corner of the park and includes Wrigley Square and the Millennium Monument.

The students allege Rules P(1) and P(3) violate their First Amendment rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion. They allege the rules also violate the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

In October 2019, Blakey granted leave for four people who regularly circulate referendum petitions in Millennium Park to file a complaint in intervention in the case.

The intervenors allege Rules P(1) and P(3) restrict their First Amendment rights to free speech and the freedom to petition the government. They allege the rules also violate their right of referendum under Illinois law.

Both the plaintiffs and the intervenors filed motions for a preliminary injunction.

In his opinion Thursday, Blakey noted the city does not dispute that the activities of the plaintiffs and intervenors are protected by the First Amendment.

But the city does dispute that the park is a traditional public forum, Blakey wrote, maintaining instead that it is a nonpublic forum.

Quoting a filing in the case, Blakey wrote the city argues the park is not a public forum because it was intended to be a “space of refuge” and contains “curated art galleries and natural plantings.”

Blakey rejected that argument and held the park is a traditional public forum.

“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.”

Blakey also held Rules P(1) and P(3) constitute content-based restrictions on speech.

City officials testified that whether saying a prayer or conveying a message amounts to speech-making depends on the intent of the speaker, Blakey wrote.

He wrote officials also testified that whether passing out a written communication runs afoul of Rule P(3) depends on the communication’s content.

For example, one official “equivocated” when asked if distributing the book “Moby-Dick” would violate Rule P(3), Blakey wrote, even though the city cited that rule in blocking the dissemination of petitions and religious literature.

Rule P(1) also is content-based because it contains no objective standards for determining whether conduct “objectively interferes” with others’ enjoyment of the art, Blakey wrote.

And he held the city did not show the rules’ restrictions serve compelling government interests.

“Although the Supreme Court has recognized that aesthetic interests constitute significant government interests, it has not found such interests to be compelling,” Blakey wrote, citing cases that included Members of City Council of City of Los Angeles v. Taxpayers for Vincent, 466 U.S. 789 (1984).

The case is Matt Swart, et al. v. City of Chicago, No. 19 C 6213.

The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys who include John W. Mauck and Sorin A. Leahu, both of Mauck & Baker LLC.

“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,” Mauck said in a statement.

“We are thankful to God for this legal protection and our request to Mayor Lightfoot is to desist the city’s misguided efforts to prevent people from freely expressing and exchanging ideas in Millennium Park.”

The intervenors are represented by Edward B. Mullen III of Ed Mullen Esq., and former Illinois Gov. Patrick J. Quinn, now a sole practitioner.

“It was a resounding victory for the First Amendment,” Quinn said.

He noted Millennium Park is the most visited site in the Midwest and the fifth most visited site in the United States.

Because the park is such a big attraction, Quinn said, Blakey’s ruling “is now one of the leading opinions on public forum law in America.”

The lead attorney for the city is Andrew S. Mine of the Chicago Corporation Counsel’s Office.

Spokeswoman Kathleen Fieweger said the Law Department is reviewing the ruling.