WEST ISLIP, N.Y. — Come HHS mandate or high water, hundreds of Catholics turned out in Long Island at a local hospital to pray the Rosary and protest the erosion of freedom of religion in the U.S. public square.

Despite the threat of a downpour, more than 750 registered participants gathered on Oct. 5 to pray three decades of the Rosary in front of Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center in West Islip, on Long Island.

Organized by the non-partisan Catholics for Freedom of Religion (CFFR), the 90-minute event began with an opening prayer and Pledge of Allegiance, and then a few speakers addressed the crowd about the U.S. tradition of freedom of religion and the threat to Catholic rights and health care posed by the HHS mandate.

The U.S. Department  of Health and Human Services’ mandate requires all employers to cover the cost of contraceptives, sterilizations and abortifacient drugs in their health plans under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The U.S. Catholic bishops have objected that the federal government is forcing Catholic employers and institutions to either violate their beliefs or cease providing health care.

“Christ must not be cast out of his places of healing,” said Richard Sullivan, chairman of the board of Catholic Health Services of Long Island, in a speech to the crowd. “No faithful person, Catholic or non-Catholic believer in the dignity of humankind from conception to natural death, should be forced against his conscience to participate in, fund or facilitate activities that they may consider illicit, immoral or evil.”

Catholic Health Services of Long Island, which includes Good Samaritan Hospital where the rally was located, is also a party to legal action challenging the constitutionality of the HHS mandate.

Sullivan told the crowd that repeated attempts “for a meaningful religious-conscience clause” have only been met with “supposed compromises that are merely covers for regularizing those actions we deplore in a different manner.”

“One could hope the secularists would withdraw [the mandate’s] imposition and settle the matter with a just religious-liberty accommodation,” he said. “But that is unlikely from among those who have elevated the destruction of the unborn to the most cosseted of rights.”


What’s at Risk

Sullivan is hopeful legal action in federal court can remedy the problem Catholics face before the HHS mandate kicks into effect on Jan. 1, 2014.

“At risk is not whether this institution — and all Roman Catholic institutions — close their doors. What is at risk is denying Our Lord the active exercise of his ‘healing hands’ through his people in his hospitals,” he said. “The Church will be forced to withdraw from this apostolic work.”

Dr. Dina El Kady, a fetal and maternal health specialist at Good Samaritan, spoke about the hospital’s program to work with women in crisis pregnancies and shared stories of the children they have saved. She shared that they have an 80% success rate of mothers choosing to keep their babies.

Msgr. Jim Vlaun, CEO of Telecare Television, also made an appearance to speak at the rally.

Attendees prayed two Rosaries during the main event, before fanning out along the street to pray a third Rosary.

Linda Discala, a member of Infant Jesus parish in Port Jefferson, N.Y., told the Register that the Oct. 5 rally was “wonderful,” and it included representatives from all the 32 CFFR groups in Long Island parishes.

“This was people getting together and standing up for what they believe in,” she said. “It was very moving, and people were so happy they attended.”

Barbara Samuells, co-founder of Catholics for Freedom of Religion, said her group worked closely with Sullivan and Good Samaritan Hospital CEO Joseph Loiacono to put on the event. She said the Catholic hospital had provided 250 chairs and set up a stage and PA system for the event. The CFFR chapter from St. Bernard’s parish on Long Island also wrote the meditations for each mystery of the Rosary.

“A lot of people were fighting back tears, because that was so amazingly powerful,” she said.


Mobilizing the Grassroots

Samuells said CFFR, founded just over a year ago, has been educating and activating Catholics in Long Island parishes, building a grassroots effort to promote and defend religious liberty in the United States.

“We have freedom of worship now in this country — the freedom to worship inside our churches — but we don’t have the robust freedom of religion our founders intended,” Samuells said. “That freedom to take our religion into our family, our community and our workplace is now gone.”

CFFR spread the word of the rally through its network of volunteers in parishes. Samuells said the group also sent letters to every pastor in the diocese asking them to share information about the rally with their parishioners.

“We told them that the surest way to help laypeople understand what is at stake here is for them to speak from the pulpit,” Samuells said.

Samuells said that CFFR is discussing the possibility of holding another rally to raise awareness about the issue of religious freedom. She said organizers have yet to decide on a time and a place, but she does believe the next one will be more ecumenical. Her group is discussing the idea of inviting a rabbi and a leader of the Coptic Christian community to lead the prayers at the next religious-freedom protest.

Although freedom of religion had been eroding over time, Samuells said the effective date of the demise of religion freedom in the United States was Aug. 1, 2012, when the HHS mandate began to go into effect, requiring employers to violate their deeply held religious beliefs or pay stiff penalties.

“These fines can quickly bankrupt our Catholic institutions,” she said. “One of our Catholic hospitals will soon celebrate its 100th anniversary, but the question is: Will it be around for one more year?”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.