At noon today, the 223rd anniversary of when James Madison first introduced the Bill of Rights to the First Congress, more than 75,000 Americans throughout the country gathered to protect, defend and exercise those rights at the nationwide Stand Up for Religious Freedom rallies.
This round of rallies served as a follow-up to the inaugural rally on March 23, where 63,000-plus citizens in 145 locations took to the streets to protest the federal Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate requiring religious employers to cover contraception and other abortion-inducing drugs as a part of their health-care coverage.
The rallies, coordinated by the Pro-Life Action League and Citizens for a Pro-Life Society, provided an opportunity for citizens to add their voices to the current legislation efforts and judicial reviews that are already underway.
According to Eric Scheidler, head of Pro-Life Action League, a public response from the citizens is a necessary component to convincing the federal government to rescind the current mandate or to provide broader exemptions for religious institutions.
“After we heard about the mandate in January,” noted Scheidler, “we knew there had to be a public response. That’s what the Pro-Life Action League is all about: putting convictions into action in the public square.”
Birthplace of Religious Freedom
While rallies took place in 164 locations throughout the United States on Friday, the rally at New York’s Federal Hall on Wall Street had special historical significance. More than 400 New Yorkers braved the heat and humidity to crowd the steps of Federal Hall, the very location where Madison introduced the Bill of Rights and where George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States.
The speakers at the New York rally included Alveda King of Priests for Life, Dr. Anne Nolte of the Gianna Healthcare Center for Women, Christopher Bell of Good Counsel Homes, Edward Mechmann of the Archdiocese of New York, and Maria McFadden Maffucci of the Human Life Foundation.
After leading the crowd in the Our Father, King encouraged attendees to see the link between the pro-life movement’s opposition to the HHS mandate and the civil-rights movement of the 1960s that was led by her late uncle, Martin Luther King Jr.
“Abortion and contraception are not health care,” she warned. “This is not the time to go home. This is not the time to give up. We are obligated to tell the truth.”
Nolte, who runs the only full-time Catholic health center for women in New York, used the opportunity to educate the crowd on the facts about birth control. According to Nolte, prior to the widespread use of birth control, one out of 12 women was diagnosed with breast cancer. Today, that number is one in eight.
“I’m here to dispel the myth that opposition to this mandate is an attack on women,” Nolte proclaimed. “Significant health risks occur from the use of the pill, and bad science is being used to take away our fundamental right to religious freedom.”
For Maffucci, her opposition to the mandate is motivated by her love for her two young daughters. “I don’t want my daughters to think that their fertility is a disease,” she told the crowd. “I want them to enjoy that they are women and could be potential mothers one day.”
While the attendance in New York was heavily Catholic, there were also Orthodox Jews in attendance, alongside Protestants of a variety of Christian traditions. Henry Bleattler, a professor at The King’s College, a nondenominational school in Manhattan, reflected on his own attendance and commented, “I am not a Catholic, and I am not against birth control. But this is an assault on religious freedom for all. For too long I’ve sat at home angry, but I decided today it was time to take a public stand.”
Rallying for Real Reform
Participants and organizers alike are hopeful that the Affordable Care Act, which was signed into law on March 23, 2010, will be overturned when the U.S. Supreme Court makes its ruling later this month. If the law is deemed unconstitutional, the HHS mandate will also be struck down, as it rests on the legislation.
If the health-care act is overturned, many citizens and politicians alike still see a need for health-care reform.
Scheidler, who participated in the Chicago rally, hopes that the rallies provide an opportunity for a renewed debate on health care and an opportunity for reform that includes the Catholic Church.
“We’re looking for something more than begrudging toleration for our conscience concerns,” lamented Scheidler. “We’re going beyond that and calling for faith institutions to be given their rightful place at the table when health-care reform is being discussed. Health care comes out of faith traditions and the call to care for one another, the stranger, the sick and the dying. The Catholic network in particular has been serving those needs for centuries.”
Register correspondent Christopher White writes from New York.