On Friday, June 8, the 223rd anniversary of James Madison’s introduction of the Bill of Rights to the first Congress, tens of thousands of people are expected to publicly defend a chief guarantee of the Bill of Right’s First Amendment, the free exercise of religion — and that in its fullest sense: not forcing people to violate their religious beliefs.
At noon local time, the second Stand Up for Religious Freedom Rally will be held in more than 130 cities nationwide at federal buildings, congressional offices and historic sites. It is being staged in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s expected ruling in late June on the Affordable Care Act, including the controversial Department of Health and Human Services mandate requiring most private employers to provide co-pay-free contraceptive and sterilization coverage in health-care plans.
“The first time around in March we got so much publicity that we think we’ll be able to educate an even wider section of the populace about threats to our religious liberties, particularly the threat posed by the HHS mandate,” said Eric Scheidler, Stand Up’s co-director. He is also executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, part of a coalition of 65 religious and civil-rights organizations supporting the rally. “I’m encouraged, because I think what we’re seeing emerge is a sort of wide-reaching pushback against the marginalization of the voice of faith in the public square.”
An estimated 64,000 people participated in March. Scheidler hopes the number will increase this time due to improved communications, from standardized press releases and email templates to media alerts and talking points for rally captains organizing the events in their respective cities.
Given the increased preparation time for this set of rallies than the previous one, there have been fewer problems obtaining permits to stage them. There also seems to be less pushback from authorities this time around, perhaps due to the media exposure, organizers surmise.
“For the prior rallies, we had more trouble with the federal government than ever, in terms of getting permits to be on federal property for the rallies,” said Peter Breen, executive director and legal counsel of the Thomas More Society, a public-interest law firm that “defends religious liberty, marriage and the sanctity of human life in courtrooms across the country.” The society serves as legal counsel for the rallies.
“The permit issues have been easier this time around, but there’ve been some challenges in various cities, and we’ve helped navigate those. In Miami, for example, the federal government had required that the name of an organization be placed on the permit application. In Dallas, the issue has been with the city of Dallas (regarding) some sort of 45-day advance requirement [to hold a rally]. But there were a lot of folks in Dallas who recently decided they wanted to come out for a rally, but [organizers] didn’t know 45 days ago that there was enough interest. We hope to work this out without going to court.”
Across Religious Lines
With the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ high-profile opposition to the HHS mandate and scores of Catholic colleges, organizations and individuals filing lawsuits against the federal government for its repeal, the case for religious liberty might be publicly perceived as a Catholic issue. Not so, say rally organizers. Speakers from a variety of Christian denominations and other religious faiths will address the crowds, stressing that religious freedom is an issue of universal — small “c” catholic — importance.
At Federal Plaza in downtown Chicago, Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz of Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation will share the podium with Catholics and Protestants and a Muslim attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Freedom, another partner in the umbrella of organizations supporting the rallies.
“Religious freedom for Jews is a very sacred thing,” said Rabbi Lefkowitz, “and we don’t want to see encroachment by the government upon the religious community. I’m honored to be asked to speak.”
He noted that many conservative and Orthodox Jewish organizations, such as the Rabbinical Council of America, are “wholeheartedly supporting the Catholic Church’s courageous stand” for religious liberty and against the HHS mandate. But he is concerned about this being seen as a Catholic issue when it is an “issue for every religious person.”
“The idea that the Church, the collective religious community, must constantly be on the defense is quite obvious today,” said Rabbi Lefkowitz, founding chairman of the Legislative Commission of the Chicago Rabbinical Council. “There is a war on religion, and if you add to it the fact that America is no longer a Judeo-Christian society, we’ve got a very difficult situation to contend with. But we have to draw the line and make sure everyone understands that the separation of church and state means protecting the church from the state, not the other way around, or else it’ll be an absolute calamity.”
Although the HHS mandate in particular and Obamacare in general are the rallies’ focal points, Scheidler agrees with the rabbi that these are battles in a larger war.
“Even if the Supreme Court were to strike down the Obamacare law and effectively remove the problem of HHS, the bias against people of faith, their institutions and communities is still a large problem in American politics, society and culture,” said Scheidler. “In the coming months and years, we need to continue to make the case for a robust presence by faith communities in the public square.”
Bishops Need Lay Support
Monica Miller, director of Citizens for a Pro-Life Society, came up with the idea for the Stand Up for Religious Freedom Rally, which she is co-directing with Scheidler.
“I had the idea that we should be doing something more active and make a public show of our opposition to the HHS mandate — instead of just writing letters and doing news interviews — so Eric and I teamed up together to do this,” she said from her home in Michigan. “This is a time in which Catholic bishops need the serious support of laypeople. We’re seeing some of the strongest statements maybe in the history of the Church in this country — like Cardinal [Francis] George [of Chicago] saying, ‘I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr.’ This is a very serious moment for the Church.”
Miller is the chief organizer for the Detroit rally, whose own Catholic shepherd will address an interfaith flock.
“It is important that we come together to face this serious challenge of defending our religious liberties,” Archbishop Allen Vigneron related in an exclusive statement for the Register. “The affronts to our freedoms within the health-care mandate are unprecedented, and we find ourselves having to fight to keep the protections that have always been provided us by the Constitution. The rally is about preserving the protections given to any religious institution. It’s about protecting the good of our Church and our entire nation — and that’s patriotic.”
Register correspondent Matthew A. Rarey writes from Chicago.