STEUBENVILLE, Ohio - Seeking voters in a key swing state, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry thought his message on the economy would resonate in the predominantly Democratic steel-working city of Steubenville, Ohio.
What his staffers didn't realize, however, was that he was walking into the neighborhood of a Catholic university known for its energetic support for the magisterium.
Approximately 500 students prayerfully marched from Franciscan University of Steubenville down to the Kerry rally to offer a silent witness about standing up for their Catholic faith.
While Senator Kerry has described himself as a “believing and practicing Catholic” and has said that he is personally opposed to abortion, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and NARAL Pro-Choice America has given him a 100% rating for his consistent pro-abortion voting record.
The students met on campus and began walking the two miles to downtown's Fort Steuben beginning at 11:45 a.m. The marchers prayed the rosary along the way, eventually arriving downtown at about 1 p.m. The rally was set to begin at 4 p.m., so in the meantime, members of the group prayed and sang together.
Members of the group each held one of three signs. They had 800 signs professionally made that read either “To Be Catholic is to Be Pro-life” or “Mr. Kerry, Please Stand Up for What you Believe.” Other members carried signs donated by the American Life League and Ohio Right to Life. They read “You Can't Be Catholic and Pro-Abortion.”
At 3 p.m. Kerry supporters began arriving for the rally. At that point the “Catholics for Life” group went into silent mode.
“Our group did not protest. We were not partisan or political,” said Bissonnette. “Our challenge to Senator Kerry was to stand up for what the Church teaches and fully embrace the Church's teachings on life.”
“It was our desire to be a silent witness,” said Bissonnette. “At 3:00, Gabriel made the sign of the cross and all 400 members of our group began praying the Divine Mercy prayer silently for Senator Kerry. It was a beautiful witness.”
The Catholics who showed up to defend the Church's teaching on human life felt positive about the impact their presence made.
“Kerry was visibly shaken,” said Steubenville City Councilman-at-large Michael Hernon. “John Kerry will not be coming back to Steubenville.”
Both Hahn and Bissonnette noted that Kerry did not address those holding the signs, but at one point he looked at the signs and stumbled over a sentence. “There was a point where he looked at the signs and faltered,” said Bissonnette. “He couldn't find his words for a moment.”
The college year had started only the Monday before the Saturday rally, but that didn't stop Franciscan University juniors Gabriel Hahn and Emily Bissonnette from organizing community members and fellow students.
Hahn, son of Steubenville professor Scott Hahn, came up with the idea for what he described as a “respectful challenge” after first learning of Kerry's visit while watching television news the Sunday prior to the rally.
“We didn't learn of the time of the visit until Tuesday evening,” said Hahn. “We had three days of preparation.”
No Free Speech?
The crowd was delayed entering the rally area for an hour while a discussion ensued between a Kerry campaign staffer, Steuben-ville Police Chief Bill McCafferty, and Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla about whether members of the Franciscan University group should be allowed to bring signs into the event. A Kerry campaign staffer attempted to take away their signs.
“A young man from the Kerry campaign grabbed about 10 signs,” said McCafferty. “He said he was going to take all the signs. I told him, ‘No you're not.’”
McCafferty told the staffer that Fort Steuben was a public park and that he did not want to be accused of restricting freedom of speech at a national political rally.
“They were taking the signs away outside the fence, but giving them Kerry signs inside the fence. They wanted to make it look like everyone there was for Kerry,” said McCafferty. “If the Kerry campaign had held the rally at a private place, like an arena, they could do that. My stance was that the others should be allowed to express their displeasure.
If I had to do it all over again, I would do the same thing.”
Eventually, the crowd was allowed in with their signs.
“Typically signs are not permitted,” said Brendon Cull, spokesman for the Democratic coordinated campaign in Ohio. As Cull did not attend the Steubenville rally he declined to answer any further questions about it. The Kerry campaign did not return the Register's telephone calls.
During the warm-up event at least two of the speakers made derogatory remarks directed at those gathered with the pro-life signs.
Rob Corzine, director of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, who was present at the rally reported that Ohio Senator Greg DiDonato “angrily said, ‘I'm Catholic. My family is Catholic. My grandparents were Catholic, and we're voting for John Kerry. Abortion is a woman's right to choose.’”
In addition to the university students, additional community members and Bush supporters also attended, including many with their families. Regis Martin, a professor of systematic theology at the university, attended the rally with his 10 children.
“County Sheriff Fred Abdalla, who, in railing against us from the platform, made the following novel theological pronouncement: ‘Anyone who makes fun of someone with a Purple Heart is committing a mortal sin,’” Dr. Regis Martin told the Register.
Witness Media reports of the event were widely varied. The Associated Press stated that there were only several dozen pro-life advocates present. Fox News reported that it was the largest pro-life turn-out for a Kerry event outside of the Democratic convention. According to the Steubenville Herald-Star, officials estimated the crowd at 3,500 as “almost split in half with people for and against the Massachusetts senator.”
Kerry supporters said that they didn't find the pro-life group's presence distracting.
“I think they wanted it to be disruptive, but it wasn't,” said Jason Wilson Jason Wilson, a local Kerry campaign volunteer who distributed more than 700 tickets for the event. “I don't think holding a sign up in the air is disruptive to anyone.”
Because the majority of those offering a silent witness were students, he described their presence as “disingenuous.”
“Most of them were not from the area,” said Wilson, who himself graduated from the university. “They don't necessarily live here. They are visiting while they are students. They don't follow the trend of the area.”
The students disagree. “We are a small community,” said Bissonnette. “Yet, we were able to make a difference. We were able to witness our total commitment to defending human life and the teachings of our Church to Senator Kerry, to our local community, and the entire nation.”
Tim Drake writes from Saint Cloud, Minnesota.
- September 19-25, 2004