From the halls of government in the nation’s capital to the hills of San Francisco, thousands of Americans turned out today across the country to voice their opposition to what they perceive as serious encroachments on religious liberty.
Sponsored by an organization called Stand Up for Religious Freedom, the rallies were held in 140 locations, including the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington.
That is the office that issued a regulation earlier this year requiring most private employers to provide co-pay-free contraceptive and sterilization coverage in health-care plans. The mandate provides only a narrow religious exemption, leading the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other organizations to protest it as an infringement on religious liberty.
More than a score of Catholic bishops spoke at rallies, and others issued statements to be read at the gatherings. But the nationwide event attracted people of all faiths.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, in a letter, commended participants for “standing up for the fundamental rights of all people of faith.”
“Since Jan. 20, when the final HHS mandate was announced, two things have been abundantly clear: Religious freedom is under attack, and we will not cease our struggle to protect it,” Cardinal Dolan said. “Of course, this is not a ‘Catholic issue’ alone. It is wonderful to see so many of our fellow Americans of all faiths stand together in this important moment. Nor is this about what our opponents are marketing as ‘women’s health.’ It’s about the sacred right of any faith community to define its own teaching and ministry and the right of every person of faith to be free from being forced to do something that violates their conscience.”
New York City’s rally drew as many as 1,000 to Federal Hall on Wall Street. Cardinal Dolan’s letter to attendees noted the symbolism of the site. George Washington, described by the cardinal as one of the great defenders of religious liberty and whose statue dominates the steps, was inaugurated at Federal Hall in 1789. New York was the nation’s first capital.
Speakers included Alveda King, the late Martin Luther King’s niece, civil-rights activist and self-described “pro-life warrior”; Rabbi Yehudah Levin of the Rabbinical Alliance of America; Christopher Bell, head of Good Counsel, which provides homes for homeless, pregnant women; and Janet Morana, co-founder of the Silent No More campaign for women.
The Rev. Bill Devlin, pastor of Manhattan Bible Church, had just concluded a 42-day fast, which he ended after a favorable ruling allowing New York City schools to continue renting weekend space to churches was announced. To win this new fight for religious liberty, Devlin drew on his experience and urged everyone to pray, fast and work.
It is inevitable that a rally in New York City will draw detractors. A small group from the nearby Occupy Wall Street contingent shouted slogans for about three to four minutes. Two pro-choice women carried signs and engaged in interviews with New York 1 24-hour cable television channel.
Philadelphia and Boston
In cities closely related to the fight for independence in 1776, protesters like Philadelphia Catholic radio talk-show host Dom Giordano recalled that the rallies were taking place on the anniversary of Patrick Henry stating, “Give me liberty or give me death.”
About 2,000 people gathered outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia, waving American flags and holding signs saying things like “Obama persecutes the Church” and “The First Amendment Rules.”
About 10 counter protesters milled about.
Steven Bozza of the Respect Life Ministry of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia said, “The Catholic Church in the U.S. is not going to back down. The bishops are not going to back down. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is not going to back down.”
“In my heart I believe we’re going to prevail,” Bozza said. “This rally is just the beginning.”
Cathy Ruse of the Family Research Council said, “I’m an American. I’m a Roman Catholic. And today I stand before you as a conscientious objector. I refuse to play the victim of a phony war on women.”
In Boston, it had been announced early this week that the rally was “canceled” because the proper permits had not been obtained. But organizers mobilized to hold the rally on Boston Common, in the area of the park that is directly across the street from the Massachusetts Statehouse.
Several hundred people gathered with many signs, including “HHS: HANDS OFF.” There were half a dozen speakers who stood on the steps and used a bullhorn to address the crowd, including Scot Landry, the Boston Archdiocese’s secretary for Catholic media. Landry noted that contraception is “ubiquitous and inexpensive.” Rather, he said, the issue is about the Obama administration putting free contraception before first freedoms.
Talking the Constitution in the Constitution State
With the visage of American Revolution martyr Gen. Casimir Pulaski looming overhead, more than 500 enthusiastic people gathered in downtown Hartford, Conn., to support religious freedom.
While his son Eric was speaking in Chicago, Joe Scheidler, national director of the Pro-Life Action League, in his familiar fedora, exhorted the throng to rise up against government tyranny, specifically citing Obama as the main antagonist.
Peter Wolfgang, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, who served as the master of ceremonies, said the Obama administration “is attempting to redefine what a religious institution is.”
Lawyer Martha Dean, a Catholic who unsuccessfully ran for Connecticut attorney general in 2010, invoked Founding Fathers Samuel Adams, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington — and their reliance on the Almighty. She said public schools omit this detail, resulting in an uneducated, passive citizenry with no accountability.
“If it were true that our Founding Fathers — mere men — created our rights, then surely our Congress or our state legislators or our president can take them away,” she said. “But our founders did not create rights. Instead, they stated repeatedly and explicitly that our rights predate our Constitution. They stated unequivocally that our rights were unalienable precisely because they were conferred by God.”
Referencing Romans 1:18-32, she said, “It is my personal belief that the only ark capable of saving our nation from the floods to come is a return of our nation and all its institutions to honoring God and living in communion with his timeless laws.”
Our Constitution doesn’t forbid this, she said: “It is what our Constitution absolutely requires of us.”
State Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, explained that the phrase “separation of church and state” was first used in a political letter from a Baptist church in Danbury to President Thomas Jefferson and has been misrepresented up to this day.
“The separation of church and state is the defense of those who are opposed to what we stand for here today,” McLachlan said. “That’s the defense [proponents of the HHS mandate] use: ‘Church, stay out of government.’ That’s not what it was about [originally]. The First Amendment was: ‘Government, stay out of church.’”
In New Haven, Conn., about 200 people gathered in front of a federal courthouse overlooking the Green. Among other speakers was Estelle Stevenson of We the People of Connecticut, an organization promoting constitutional values, who reminded listeners that they live in “the Constitution State.”
Rich Rinaldi urged those in attendance to not be afraid of exercising their right to free speech. Rinaldi, who hosts a weekly Catholic program on public-access cable TV, recalled a much larger demonstration on the Green in the early 1970s, when thousands of Black Panthers and their supporters protested the imprisonment of Panther leader Bobby Seale. The atmosphere was tense, and Rinaldi was there with fellow National Guard members, armed and given the order to “shoot to kill” if they felt their lives were threatened.
“We were protecting their right to demonstrate, their right to free speech,” he said, adding it is a right religious-liberty advocates should exercise.
Two Dominican priests were present from nearby St. Mary’s Church, where the Knights of Columbus was founded in the 19th century. One priest, Father Peter John Cameron, editor of Magnificat, the daily missalette and prayer aid, read the First Amendment to the gathering.
When veteran pro-life activist Bob Newman was approached by Eric Scheidler three weeks ago to organize the Pittsburgh rally, he agreed, imagining it might draw 100 sympathetic locals on lunch break from their downtown workplaces. Instead it was closer to 500. Half of these were students from nearby Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. These, combined with a dozen home-schooling families, gave an overwhelmingly youthful vibe to the gathering.
Speakers took to the podium in front of the Federal Building, including Father Terence Henry, TOR, president of Franciscan. “Our founders had the wisdom to create three branches of government to supply checks and balances should one of them begin abusing its power,” he said. “The executive branch has indeed abused its power, and we are here seeking redress of our grievances, to protect religious freedom for ourselves and those who will come after us. We seek redress through the courts and through the legislators. What is at stake is the Church’s ability to act in a free society, to not be coerced to act against our beliefs.”
“This is a pivotal moment for the Church in the U.S.,” Father Henry told the Register. “If we give in, we’ll be no better than the Church in China, which must check what it says and does with the government before it can speak.”
Xhonane Olivas, who immigrated to Pennsylvania from Mexico five years ago, brought three of her children to the rally from a distance of 80 miles. Olivas said her children needed to be there “to learn what this fight is all about, to practice being strong and brave, and to stand up for what is right. It’s very exciting to be here today.”
Another guest speaker was David Bereit, co-founder of the 40 Days for Life movement. “This administration has said that the government can decide what your religion can or cannot do. It has spit in the face of religion.”
City of Big Shoulders
Despite a steady downpour, more than 2,500 people packed Federal Plaza in downtown Chicago for an interfaith rally in support of religious freedom. The rain stopped, however, soon after organizers led the crowd in singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
Rep. Joe Walsh, a Republican who represents Illinois’ Eighth Congressional District, shouted into the loud speaker, “If you’re not prepared to go to jail and stand up for your freedom, you don’t know what’s at stake in this [November] election.”
“We know now — and we knew about it then, when Obamacare was passed — that Obama will ruin businesses in this country. What we knew then and should know by now is that Obamacare will destroy our freedoms; and we can’t let this happen.”
Dr. Anthony Caruso, an ob-gyn specialist at the suburban Alexian Brothers Medical Center, said, “I’m on the front line of this chess game being played in Washington. And their first move was an attack on the heart of medicine. It’s a calculated effort. When President Obama went to Notre Dame in 2009, he said, ‘Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion and draft a sensible conscience clause.’ And yet now he’s betraying our consciences.”
“I’m being asked to prescribe like candy powerful medicines designed to break the reproductive system: medicines that increase the risk of blood clots, of heart disease and of cancer,” he said.
Rep. Dan Lipinski, a Democrat representing Illinois’ Third Congressional District, was introduced as an “endangered species in Illinois, a pro-life Democrat who has refused to tow the party line on Obamacare and the HHS mandate.”
“The administration made a religious provision [under Obamacare] that Jesus Christ himself wouldn’t qualify for an exemption,” said Lipinski, a Catholic.
Brian Burch, president of the Chicago-based CatholicVote.org, told the crowd that the Obama re-election campaign headquarters was just two blocks away and that if anyone from the campaign were in the crowd, they would see “people who love their country and their freedom.”
“We’re not your enemy,” he said. “We didn’t start this fight. Go tell your campaign managers that here today you saw the future, and if you don’t change, you’ll be in for big trouble come election time. Tell them that you saw something great here today: real hope.”
Joseph Morris, a leader in B’nai B’rith and a member of the advisory board of Catholic Citizens of Illinois, described himself as “pro-life and a freedom-loving Jew.”
“Just two generations ago my people back in Europe suffered under an all-powerful state,” he said. “Today we have an aspiring all-powerful state. It’s not just the HHS mandate. It’s significant that whenever Mr. Obama recites that famous passage from the Declaration of Independence about ‘our inalienable rights,’ on seven or eight occasions he left out the part about those rights being ‘endowed by our Creator.’”
In the Heartland
Gathered beneath the arches on the stairs of St. Mary’s Cathedral in St. Cloud, Minn., marked by images of the four Gospel writers, about 350 people gathered for a prayerful and peaceful demonstration. Holding homemade signs that read: “Washington, D.C.‘s Pharaoh: Let My People Go,” “Nurse’s Conscience Rights” and “Respect Religious Rights,” the rally was attended by families, doctors, nurses, business owners, retirees, Catholics and non-Catholics, teenagers, seminarians, deacons and a single priest from the nearby Diocese of New Ulm. After an opening prayer, rally captain and retired registered nurse Jim Schwarz spoke about how Christians “birth Christ in the world” through worship, witness and acts of service.
“For the Catholic Church this is not just a violation of our conscience; it is a violation of religious liberty, the first of all rights under the First Amendment because it impedes the free exercise of religion,” said Schwarz. “Unless the mandate is dropped, the Church will either have to close its institutions or remove the name ‘Catholic’ off the door and abandon its mission.”
Following the Prayer to St. Michael, the crowd was led in singing America the Beautiful and The Star-Spangled Banner. Then the protesters marched around the block to demonstrate in front of Sen. Al Franken’s office. After filing past his office, the group re-assembled on the stairs of the cathedral to conclude the rally by praying the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary for “the restoration of our religious freedom and to rescind the mandate.”
“I’m here because of the First Amendment and the government telling us we have to pay for medications that induce abortion, which is something I don’t believe in,” said Angie Brandmire, a nursing assistant at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in St. Cloud. “The government is taking control of our lives. This is a land where we’re supposed to be free and free from persecution.”
Schwarz said that he hopes to organize another rally in Moorhead, Minn. He said that he would like to organize a rally outside of Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s office. “She’s been a barrier to establishing conscience rights,” said Schwarz.
Coast to Coast
Approximately 150 people gathered on the steps of the Claude Pepper Federal Building in Miami, including at least six priests.
“This is the American dream, and it will continue. The U.S. is a beacon of light,” said Father Alfred Cioffi, a priest from the Archdiocese of Miami and senior fellow at the National Catholic Bioethics Center. “We are all law-abiding citizens, and we will not tolerate government doing this. We will say, ‘No.’”
A spontaneous chorus of “Nos” erupted among the crowd.
Father Cioffi continued, “We want our religion to be respected and defended by the federal government, not attacked.”
Also speaking was Gracie Christie, a Catholic radiologist and mother of five, who said, “They say that we are anti-science, anti-women. As a woman scientist, this is both inaccurate and dishonest. Denying our individual rights of conscience is also dishonest.”
The San Francisco rally was held in the Federal Building Plaza, drawing some 500 people. Mary Beth Bonacci of RealLove.net was the rally’s emcee.
At the rally, Bishop Salvatore Cordileone of Oakland, Calif., related a conversation he had with his mother about the mandate. She told him, “This is what the pilgrims came to this country for!” The bishop continued: “If my 85-year-old mother, who never went to college, can understand this, why is it so hard for our elected officials? ... How dare the government define for us what constitutes our religious faith!”
Dolores Meehan, co-founder of the Walk for Life West Coast, spoke directly to the Obama administration, saying, “You are trying to take our basic rights away by executive order. Well, come and get us. Game on. Send your National Guard to close down our secondary schools, our hospitals. The answer is simply: ‘No.’ No man in the White House, no man in the Kremlin, no Chairman Mao, no Fidel Castro, no Barack Obama can take these rights away.”
A half dozen protesters attempted to disrupt the rally, but the San Francisco Police Department and the Department of Homeland Security moved them to the margins of the crowd. They began the “Not the church, not the state …” chant, but were drowned out by rally attendees singing Ave Maria.
This story was reported by Nona Aguilar in New York; Christine Williams in Boston; Matthew Archbold in Philadelphia; Daria Sockey in Pittsburgh; Angelique Ruhi-Lopez in Miami; Matthew A. Rarey in Chicago; Tim Drake in St. Cloud, Minn.; Tom Wehner in Hartford, Conn.; John Burger in New Haven, Conn.; and Gibbons Cooney in San Francisco. It was written by John Burger.