140 Cities Expected to See Religious Freedom Rallies Today

Thousands expected to gather in opposition to the HHS mandate on second anniversary of health-care reform act.

The Nationwide Rally for Religious Freedom is set to take place today at noon in 140 cities across the country. From Hawaii to Maine, citizens are preparing to let their voices be heard on the value of religious freedom. Meeting places include historic sites, congressional offices and federal buildings. The theme for the rally is “Stand Up for Religious Freedom — Stop the HHS Mandate!”

The rallies, which are scheduled to take place on the second anniversary of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (commonly called Obamacare), are being organized by the Pro-Life Action League and by Citizens for a Pro-Life Society in response to the recent Department of Health and Human Services mandate requiring most employers’ health-insurance plans to provide co-pay-free sterilization, contraception and abortion-causing drugs.

The mandate is unacceptable to Eric Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League, who is spearheading the rallies. While he says there are numerous objections to the mandate, opposition to it can be broken down into two key points. The first, he says, is that “in principle, this mandate treats fertility, which can be seen as the very definition of health, as a disease. This is being talked about as ‘preventive care,’ as if motherhood, fatherhood and childhood are diseases to be avoided. This is extremely offensive.”

The second point, which Scheidler sees as even more important, is the violation of religious freedom. “This mandate would force employers to pay for sterilization, contraception and abortion-causing drugs, even in violation of their consciences. This is a direct attack on religious freedom itself, despite what many are being led to believe,” he said.

“Some think that because a so-called ‘accommodation’ was offered, everything is fine,” Scheidler said. “The Church, not the insurance companies, would still be forced to pay for things which violate Church teachings. The only way around it would be if a Catholic hospital, for example, would only hire Catholic employees and serve Catholic patients. This is ridiculous — the corporal works of mercy are not meant for Catholics alone. The HHS ’accommodation’ is so narrow that Jesus and his apostles would not qualify for it.”

He noted that even as Obama and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius presented the accommodation Feb. 10, the administration was “submitting their original plan to be published in the Federal Register. They did not intend to give us any leeway.”

Scheidler hopes to make this clear to those who had been unaware of it. “We really want this to be both a grassroots effort across the nation and also a unified effort with a very clear message. And that message is to stand up for religious freedom and stop Obama’s HHS mandate.”

Among the groups supporting the effort are Concerned Women for America, the National Black Pro-Life Coalition and Students for Life of America.

While many of the rally supporters are Catholic, Scheidler said this “really isn’t just a Catholic issue. This is a direct attack on the constitutionally protected right of religious organizations to define their own mission and purpose, which has been attacked by the Obama administration.” Scheidler wants to see everyone who supports his efforts, whether Catholic or not, to come to their nearest location in support of the effort. “We’re really encouraging people to invite local religious leaders — not just Catholics, but Protestants, Jews and others — to participate as speakers at the rallies as well.”

Twenty-two Catholic bishops are expected to take to the podium at rallies today, including Bishop Robert Baker of Birmingham, Ala., and Bishop Salvatore Cordileone Oakland, Calif.

Speakers at the Federal Plaza in Chicago will include Sheila Liaugminas of Relevant Radio and Chicago archdiocesan priest Father Richard Simon. Cardinal Francis George will provide a recorded message for participants to hear. The newly installed coadjutor bishop of San Diego, Bishop Cirilo Flores, is scheduled to speak at the San Diego County Administration Building. New York City’s speakers include Father Benedict Groeschel of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and Alveda King, the pro-life activist and niece of Martin Luther King Jr.

Solidarity among all believers is something that Catholic radio talk-show host Al Kresta is also hoping for. “We want to see all believers support and join us in our efforts. This affects not just Catholics, but everyone. We cannot allow the federal government to dictate to us what we are to believe in. If we as a nation allow this one step, there’s no telling what else will ensue. It’s a shift from liberty to tyranny.”

Kresta, who is also the national spokesman for StopHHS.com, will be speaking at the Patrick V. McNamara Federal Building in Detroit. He expects to see a large turnout. “We’ve got a great group of people in Detroit who are interested in this issue, and I really do look forward to seeing a large number of them participating in what I think is the most important issue of our time.”

Every notable person Kresta has spoken with about the issue is in agreement on its nature. “I’ve talked with many people — constitutional scholars, bishops, attorneys, historians — and they all agree, whether they’re liberal or conservative, that this is unprecedented. Never before has the United States government attempted to force religious institutions to violate their deeply held beliefs,” Kresta explained.

“When abortion was allowed by law in 1973, it was very regrettable; and it remains regrettable that people are able to end the lives of their unborn children,” Kresta stated. “However, no American citizen is being compelled to commit abortion. We are all free not to engage in that activity. With the HHS mandate, there’s a reversal. They are trying to proactively force us to act against our beliefs. It’s not a toleration of evil, but a heavy-handed promotion of it.”

However, Kresta thinks that because of slanted secular media coverage, many people still see this as a trivial issue . He hopes the rally will jump-start awareness of the importance of standing up for religious freedom. “The secular media is portraying this as no big deal, but it is a qualitative shift. It is fundamentally different from what has happened before: The federal government is proactively trying to restrict our individual and religious liberty. We want to make that clear across the nation. This is not about contraception; it’s about the federal government intruding where it does not belong.”

Penny Nance, president and CEO of Concerned Women for America, the nation’s largest public-policy women’s organization, shares Kresta’s apprehension. “We are deeply concerned about the dismantling of our constitutional freedoms and the assault on Christian institutions in America,” she stated.

“When religious groups are forced to deny their deeply held religious convictions, it is not called ‘balance’; it is called ‘tyranny,’” Nance said. “Concerned Women for America reminds the president that our nation was founded on Judeo-Christian principles. Further, America’s social safety nets will not hold up without the contributions of Christian institutions — many of them run by the Catholic Church — and that churches and religious institutions provide the strong moral threads of the nation’s social fabric.”

Scheidler also sees the issue as being very widespread. “This is something that carries over into society at large. It’s not just a few out-of-touch pundits and bishops out there,” he said. “There are many women and men who reject the idea that pregnancy and childbirth are diseases that need to be prevented. There are many people who believe this is an encroachment on their religious freedom by the federal government.”

Overbearing government is something American Founding Father Patrick Henry is known for opposing, so it is noteworthy that the rally will be held on the anniversary of his famous 1775 statement — Scheidler said the timing of the rally was unintentional but providential — “Give me liberty or give me death.”

Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.