John Burger came to the Register in 2001 as a staff writer after working as a reporter for Catholic New York, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York. He has a bachelor’s degree in English from Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., and a master’s degree in English from Iowa State University and has taught in China and France.
It started with a prayer, followed by a reading of the First Amendment.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
A crowd of about 250 people, of a variety of religions and races, responded in their own ways, with Amens and applause.
Men and women, boys and girls stood for over an hour under a fairly strong sun, holding flags and signs that read “Stand Up for Religious Freedom” and “Stop Obama’s HHS Mandate.” Bells from a nearby civic building cut through the din of traffic every quarter hour.
It was a snapshot of America, that experiment in the New World that got its start in large measure so that men and women could seek God and not feel they had to do so in a way dictated by those in charge.
A Catholic bishop spoke at the rally, sponsored by the non-sectarian, non-partisan Family Institute of Connecticut, followed by an evangelical leader. Politicians weighed in, and would-be elected officials got a chance to promote their campaigns — as well as the values they apparently shared with everyone else in attendance.
It could have been any American town. But here we were in New Haven, Connecticut, a place that fairly reeks with history, much of it tied up with the same kind of fight these people were here for.
It is, after all, the “Constitution State,” named because it had the first written democratic constitution. A Puritan leader named Thomas Hooker, who himself strove for religious freedom, founded the colony of Connecticut and helped draft that constitution.
This is the state where, in Danbury, a group of Baptists wrote to Thomas Jefferson, concerned about government interference. The third president responded that government should stay out of church affairs.
This is the city where the Amistad trial took place. And this is where, in 1882, a young priest named Father Michael J. McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus, a group that fought for the religious freedom of the Cristeros in Mexico and find themselves in the early stages of a somewhat similar fight in this country today.
And in the very place where yesterday’s rally took place, New Haven’s “Green,” or central square, people have come together for hundreds of years to speak out for freedom — religious and otherwise, as Connecticut State Sen. Michael McLachlan pointed out.
Perhaps Father Joseph Looney, a local Catholic pastor, said it best in his opening prayer yesterday. Some in government, he said, want to take away our religious freedom in the name of “compulsive utopianism and misguided compassion.” Because a branch of the federal government has determined that contraceptives, sterilization and certain abortifacient drugs are important tools in preventative healthcare for women, everyone will be forced to pay for it. For attorney Vincent McCarthy, who heads up the northeast region of the American Center for Law and Justice, the HHS mandate not only is a clear violation of the religious liberty of those who are unwilling to pay for or facilitate such services; it plays into the “culture of death.”
“The Pilgrims came here seeking religious freedom,” he told the crowd. “From our first document, the Mayflower Compact…it has been our earliest and most important goal. And yet we stand here today asking for religious freedom. Our founders would be ashamed of where we’ve ended up today.”
McCarthy opined that the HHS mandate is “meant to crush religious dissent to the contraceptive culture.” That culture, which got its start with the Sexual Revolution, has transformed what was once a virtuous society. As much as abortion victimizes every unborn child who is killed and every mother who makes that fateful decision, so too American culture is victimized, he said: it “becomes more and more debased with each abortion.”
Not everyone in attendance, including some speakers, agreed with the Catholic teaching on the immorality of the use of contraception. Some of the speakers even said as much.
But everyone agreed that it’s beyond the limits of government to force anyone to facilitate something one finds morally unacceptable. Or to define what constitutes a religious organization deserving of an exemption to that rule.
Speakers asked for prayers for upcoming legal decisions, including the expected U.S. Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act. McCarthy saw hope in two recent Supreme Court cases, which “allowed organizations to define themselves as they choose.”
“Both the Boy Scouts and the Hibernians were allowed to say who they were and who they were not, by the composition of their organizations, i.e., who they included and who they excluded. The Catholic Church has that same right, founded at Plymouth Rock…the right of religious organizations to believe what they choose and disbelieve what they reject, which informs all other freedoms and cannot be surrendered without surrendering all of our other rights.”
Yes, New Haven has been a place where people have struggled for freedom. But it’s also been a place where ideas have led to less than ideal consequences, according to the final speaker on the program.
“New Haven has long been incubator of policies and philosophies that stand in opposition of our free society,” said Martha Dean, a former candidate for the office of attorney general in Connecticut. In an interview later, she cited specific examples, such as Griswold v. Connecticut, the case that is seen as providing the legal underpinning for Roe v. Wade.
“As most of you know, the policies of the Left are often hatched here in New Haven, and now, full grown, they are coming to roost in our nation's capital," she said. "Who would have thought it would be the Left, long thought of as civil libertarians in our nation, who would impose speech and thought codes in our schools, even in our universities? Who would have thought it would be the Left, long the proponents of supposed diversity, who would actually stamp out diversity of thought and diversity of opinion among professors and students alike,... to divide us on the basis of class, race, gender, religion? Who would have thought it would be the Left, supposed believers in freedom, who would impose on our children as the new normal, as an alternate morality, sexual deviancy and immorality?”
Even as she was speaking, officials at the State Capitol decided that abortion should be considered an essential benefit in everyone’s insurance — covered in any plan available starting in 2014.
Rally organizer Norma Contois told the gathering yesterday that there might be another such event before Election Day. It looks like it will be some time before Connecticut’s freedom fighters will be able to rest.