All Along “The Watchtower”: Is It Legal to Proselytize in ‘L’ Stops?

Jehovah’s Witnesses at the CTA’s Midway station. Photo: Chicago Special Metropolitan Witnessing
Jehovah’s Witnesses at the CTA’s Midway station. Photo: Chicago Special Metropolitan Witnessing

[The Chicago Reader publishes a weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. We syndicate the column on Streetsblog after it comes out online.]

“Can I get a witness?” Sure, just look for them inside your local el station.

Volunteers from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian denomination that claims 8.4 million members in 240 countries, are a common sight at CTA train stops. They stand quietly smiling with carts of religious publications, out on the sidewalk when it’s nice out, or in the “unpaid” area of the station, outside of the turnstiles, when the weather is inclement. The women are modestly, but sharply, dressed, and the men look natty as well, often wearing sports jackets and fedoras.

Though I’m not interested in converting, I sometimes stop and say hello and pick up a copy of The Watchtower or Awake! to humor them, since I find their cheerful vibe oddly comforting. They’re certainly more agreeable than the Old Navy Street Preacher, who hangs out at Randolph and State railing against fornicators and cigarette smokers.

Granted, there was one time when I experienced a bit of negativity from Jehovah’s Witnesses. It was shortly after the 2016 passing of Prince, perhaps the most famous adherent of the faith, who learned about it from Sly and the Family Stone bassist (and hip-hop star Drake’s uncle) Larry Graham. I asked a couple of young female volunteers standing near Union Station, what they thought of the late singer. They frowned, and implied that Prince wasn’t really a Witness due to his drug abuse and hypersexual onstage persona. However, that encounter was the exception that proved the rule that the Witnesses almost always appear to be in a good mood.

But not everyone appreciates the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ presence at transit stations. Kevin Havener, an Edgewater resident who often commutes via the Red Line, contacted me to share a message he sent to the transit authority, which he said they never responded to. He claimed that the Witnesses’ practice of offering literature inside el stops violated a guideline in the agency’s Rules of Conduct against distribution of written materials on CTA property.

“I find this inexplicable permission deeply, personally offensive,” Havener’s message read. “Would the CTA allow other religious proselytizing [by groups] such as [Orthodox Jews], or Buddhists, or Hare Krishnas? OF COURSE NOT. Therefore please do not allow the Jehovah’s Witnesses [to do so].” (For the record, most branches of Orthodox Judaism and Buddhism don’t proselytize.)

Havener eventually revealed to me that he has a horse in this race. Around 2008 he and other members of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship activist group wanted to quietly hand out leaflets inside the Fullerton el stop in Lincoln Park. When they asked the customer assistant for permission, they were told they needed to be out on the public sidewalk, and not blocking any station doors. “That made perfect sense, and that’s what we did,” he said.

Still, it was an interesting question: Is the CTA giving the Jehovah’s Witnesses preferential treatment by allowing them to camp out in stations?

Jehovah's Witnesses inside the 95th/Dan Ryan station. Photo: John Greenfield
Jehovah’s Witnesses inside the 95th/Dan Ryan station. Photo: John Greenfield

No, according to agency spokeswoman Catherine Hosinski. “The protections afforded by the First Amendment prevent the CTA from regulating the content of speech that is distributed in its unpaid area, regardless of whether it is religious, political, or social, or espouses a particular religious, political or social viewpoint.”

Hosinski directed me to guideline #23 of the Rules of Conduct, and it was clear that Havener hadn’t read the document carefully enough. “Distributing of advertisements or any other written materials or soliciting or petitioning” is indeed prohibited on trains and buses, as well as in the “paid” areas of stations. However, the rule indicates that it’s permitted in the unpaid areas, as long as it doesn’t impede pedestrian flow. So not only can religious groups proselytize inside stations, but the CTA also allows people to offer commuters fliers for appliance sales or hip-hop shows within el stops.

Martin Redish, a Northwestern professor of constitutional law, told me this policy has a precedent in the 1992 Supreme Court case “The Society for Krishna Consciousness Versus Lee.” The Court ruled that the Hare Krishnas could not do outreach within New York-area airports because they are not a “traditional public forum.” “I would argue that a train station is a traditional public forum,” Redish said. “It’s clearly better that the CTA is erring on the side of allowing free speech. Of course, if the speakers start harassing people or not taking no for an answer, you’ve got a different situation.”

Even Tom Cara, director of the local chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which advocates for separation of church and state, agreed that the CTA’s rule seems to be kosher. “We look at this the same way as we look at a public street,” he said. “Obviously people are allowed to stand out on a street corner and hand out literature if they like. If the CTA has established this space as a public forum, then the policy appears to be legal.”

Cara compared the situation to Daley Plaza during the holidays, when in addition to the city’s official “holiday tree,” different groups have been permitted to erect a creche, a menorah, and a star and crescent. Freedom From Religion puts up a nine-foot banner celebrating the winter solstice and the 1791 ratification of the Bill of Rights and a lighted “A” sign, the international  symbol of atheism and agnosticism.

But if it’s OK for anyone to do low-key proselytizing or handbill distribution within the unpaid area of a CTA station, why does it seem like the Witnesses are the only ones taking advantage of this loophole, and why did the Fullerton station attendant tell the Buddhists otherwise? From talking with Paul Schmidt, the coordinator for Jehovah’s Witnesses “Bible literature displays” in Chicago, it appears that the keys are familiarity with the rules, consistently showing up at the same stations day after day, and maintaining a pleasant demeanor.

Jehovah's Witnesses at the Roosevelt station. Photo: Chicago Special Metropolitan Witnessing
Jehovah’s Witnesses at the Roosevelt station. Photo: Chicago Special Metropolitan Witnessing

If you’ve ever had a CTA customer assistant stop you from taking a bicycle on the el a few minutes before designated rush hours – which is permissible under the CTA’s Bike & Ride rules – you know that the station attendants aren’t always familiar with the finer points of agency policy. That may explain why Havener’s group was turned down the one time they tried to canvas a station.

In contrast, Schmidt, a relaxed-sounding guy who talks with a “Fargo”-esque Minnesota lilt, told me the Witnesses have been showing up at el stations on a regular basis since 2012. He said his organization, Chicago Special Metropolitan Public Witnessing, coordinates some 1,900 volunteers from as far afield as Indiana and Wisconsin, who distribute literature 12 hours a day, seven days a week, at 19 different locations. Almost all of these are downtown CTA and Metra stations, plus Navy Pier, the UIC student center, and the Midway and O’Hare el stops.

I’ve also recently spotted Witnesses at the 95th/Dan Ryan and Wilson Red Line stations. Facebook friends told me they’ve encountered the snappily dressed evangelists at the Kedzie Pink Line and Montrose Brown Line stops, as well the Metra station near Irving Park and Pulaski, and the Jefferson Park Transit Center. Schmidt explains that neighborhood congregations have taken the initiative to staff these and other locations independently, on a more sporadic basis.

Schmidt said his organization has never formally requested permission from the CTA to proselytize (he prefers to call it “Bible education work), but volunteers usually approach the station attendant to tell them what they’re up to. “We want to make sure we’re in compliance with any laws, but also exercise our legal right to publicize our faith.”

“One of the reasons that the CTA and the police have been so good to us over the years is because we’re not aggressive,” Schmidt added. “We’re not going to shove a piece of literature in people’s faces — we’re there if they want to talk to us.”

That doesn’t mean that the volunteers don’t occasionally get static from straphangers. “When you put your faith out there in a public setting, some people are going to disagree with you,” Schmidt said. “Some do it more vocally than others. We have the right to exercise our religion and freedom of speech, but everyone around us does too, so that’s just part of the deal.”

As for his fellow Minnesotan Prince, Schmidt takes a more charitable view than the young volunteers I discussed him with two years ago. He argued that since the Purple One was baptized as a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001, and his funeral was held at a Kingdom Hall, he should be respected as a member of the faith. “Do we idolize him? No. But he sure could play guitar, I’ll tell you that.”

  • planetshwoop

    240 countries? Most counts have just under 200 countries, so I find that fact curious. (good article!)

  • Concobhar Mac Conmara

    Who cares? They leave you alone if you leave them alone and they always stand to the side, out of the way

  • JacobEPeters

    I have no qualms as long as they are not blocking station wayfinding signage as they are in that first image at Midway. I have had to help tourists navigate CTA stations frequently during my commute, & on a few occasions it was just because helpful signage was obscured.

  • Chicago Cyclist

    Hmmm.. why would the “non-paid” or “non-security controlled” areas of an airport not be a “traditional public forum” but “non-paid” areas of a train system be a “traditional public forum”? Maybe Professor Radish could explain. Train stations have been around longer than airports but other than that, I’m not sure what the substantive difference in the two modes’ public access areas would be…

    I’ve noticed, over the last couple of years, a big increase not just in Chicago, but in cities all around the country (the world?) of these folks with their cheery demeanor, Sunday-best clothes, and racks of colorful brochures. I don’t think they were around at all (or much) a few years ago, but now they are everywhere. Maybe someone can look into this — you know, find out from JW’s “top brass” if this is a national campaign or some such thing.

  • johnaustingreenfield
  • BlueFairlane

    On the Introvert’s Scale of Daily Horrors, these people rate pretty low. I mean, I can feel them looking at me when I pass and have to work out where to keep my eyes, but they’ve never actually spoken to me. I find them far less troubling than all the young people with the clipboards up on the street level.

  • Ray Tylicki

    These people are pretty nice ….beats the drunk pissed soaked guy bumming for change.

  • Janet Cecilia Cohen Welsh

    You can check the exact number of countries the preaching work is carried out in their official website

  • Janet Cecilia Cohen Welsh

    This is another avenue of Service by means of which we can get the message of the Good News of God’s Kingdom Government to people who usually we don’t find at home.

  • HopeForCompassion

    Jehovah’s Witnesses themselves are kept in the dark about their own religion, especially their cover ups of their child abuse problems. One publication of theirs you won’t be able to pick up from a stabs us their secret guidelines (which women aren’t even allowed to touch) called “Shepherding the Flock of God’. In there you’ll find the rulings how the Elders have the right to excommunicate a rape victim. Excommunication means you will never speak toany family or friends again who are JWs. The corporation breaks up families, inserts itself between husband’s and wives, children and parents.
    This is not a benign group of well dressed people but a mind control group that causes suicides, mental health problems, despair and damage.
    Websites such as jwfacts dot com and silentlambs dot org will reveal what is happening behind the facade.

  • Nathan Haugh

    One question for the local govt. that allows this proselytizing: Are you keenly aware of the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses are potentially allowing for a child molester to be manning one of these carts? This is because by practice they do NOT report to the secuar authorities. See the Australian Royal Commission, e.g.

  • Nathan Haugh

    Witnesses inflate their global representation by using the term “lands”. So they say they are located in over 235 lands, not countries. As you correctly say, there are not even that many countries on Earth! It is all about image to them. They are obsessed with appearances, just like the Pharisees that they are.
    Fortunately the internet is exposing this cult for what it truly is.

  • Natasha Peeters

    Jehovah’s witnesses{Watchtower/ is a cult and they try to find adepts. They hide pedophiles . Please watch W5 on CTV(Canada) “no witnesses’ April 23/ 2018. I am one of many victims and those people call the police on us when we want to talk about this subject or another because they practice shunning too ! They lie as much as they breathe !

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Folks, the purpose of this article is not to debate the pros and cons of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but rather to discuss a public space and freedom of speech issue. Let’s move the conversation back on topic please. Thanks.

  • Nathan Haugh

    To have a productive conversation regarding public spaces, freedom of speech and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, everyone needs to be informed of their actual nature. What might seem like unrelated rants are actually informed persons attempting to educate the general public as to what they are really dealing with here.
    If we’re going to honestly discuss whether the JWs should be allowed to proselytize in public places, we MUST consider the safety of the children.
    The JWs strictly follow something called “the 2-witness rule”, and unbelievably, they even apply it to child abuse cases. In other words, if there are not 2 eyewitness to the abuse, it is NOT reported to the police or any secular authorities (shockingly even the congregation isn’t informed, but i want to keep religion out of this discussion). Just let that thought detontate in your brain for a moment. This is why there are many, many people that do not want the JWs in these public places – to protect our children.
    Please don’t take my word for it, though, various governments and Charity Commisions around the globe are CURRENTLY investigating the JWs for their systemic cover-up of child molestation. This JW scandal shows a higher percentage of abusers than even the Catholic Church’s infamous child abuse scandal.


  • Nathan Haugh

    Incorrect. Your link shows that they claim 240 lands, not countries. It’s an important distinction.

    See my other comment as to the reason why they do this.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Folks this thread is turning into a debate between Jehovah’s Witnesses and anti-Jehovah’s Witnesses, which is not really relevant to the original topic and is clogging our inboxes, so I’m going to close commenting for the article. Thanks for reading.


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