From noon until 1pm Friday, local people of faith gathered at the U.S. Courthouse at 401 W. Central in downtown Orlando. Their purpose: to participate in a nationwide effort to stand up for religious freedom. This event was mirrored in over 130 cities across the nation.
In January, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued a mandate that all employers must provide health insurance that covers, free-of-charge, contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortion-inducing drugs. This mandate was immediately condemned by the bishops of the Catholic Church and has been criticized by many others, regardless of party affiliation, as trampling on religious liberties and conscience protection. Although the mandate does contain a religious exemption clause, it is limited only to religious organizations that cater to members of the same faith. This means that the exemption excludes religiously-affiliated hospitals, schools, and charities that help and serve others regardless of denomination or creed.
Immediately after the opening prayer, a common theme emerged from the speakers at the rally, starting with U.S. Representative Sandy Adams (FL-24): opposition to the mandate is not part of a “war on women” but rather a defense against a “war on religious liberty” started by the Obama administration.
“I want all of you to hear me clearly,” said Rep. Adams to the crowd of several hundred people, “I am a woman, and I recognize that this is a war on religious liberty and our religious freedoms, and we will not stand by and let you [Congressional Democrats and the President] do that.” (full video here)
Additional speakers were a mix of religious figures, politicians, lawyers, and public policy organizations’ representatives. Current members of the Florida House, Scott Plakon (Dist 37) and Steve Precourt (Dist 41) spoke before and after Rep. Adams, echoing Adams’s sentiments, as well as promoting current legislation they have sponsored, including the Florida Religious Freedom Amendment (which will appear as Amendment 8 on the November 2012 ballot).
Catholic priest Fr. Rick Voor of St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church in Maitland was the first of many religious figures to speak. In an interview before the rally started, Fr. Voor stated that he was there to stand, “in unity with the bishops that have already voiced their opposition, and, by their courage, they are all inspiring all of us to stand up for our rights… as we Americans and Catholics protect our First Amendment rights.”
Fr. Augustine Clark of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church and Catholic School said that he isn't even an American citizen (he is British), but he realizes the importance of religious liberty and recognizes the United States as the place where the stand must be made. "When basic freedoms are attacked and innocent children's lives are at stake, that's not a national issue, that's a worldwide issue. America is meant to stand for freedom worldwide, which means it must be defended right here."
These themes were repeated both by speakers during the rally, as well as individuals after the rally. Terri Johannessen, of the Florida chapter of Concerned Women for America, even thanked the Catholics for being the first to stand against the mandate, saying, “if it weren’t for the Catholic Church, there wouldn’t be a pro-life movement in this country.”
Other speakers included pastors from Victorious Living Fellowship, a pastor and lawyer for Liberty Counsel, and other churches in the area. Even R.C. Sproul, a Reformed Theology Calvinist minister who denounced the 1994 ecumenical document Evangelicals and Catholics Together, gave a speech, standing up for religious freedom alongside Catholic priests and Catholic politicians, quoting the Martin Niemoller poem "First they came...".
Michelle Herzog, of ProLife Action Ministries, was contacted by the Pro-Life Action League to be one of the local organizers of the event. She said that the work of Catholics like PLAL president Joe Scheidler (whom she calls, “the granddaddy of the pro-life movement”) who “respond to what God has put on their heart” has made all the difference.
Although there were no counter-protestors visible and many car horns honking support as they drove through downtown, there were some criticisms from some attendees. “There were political talks, more from republicans, and others got turned off, left earlier,” said one attendee (who wished to remain anonymous). “There was priest from St Magdalene... maybe those who left expected more clergies there and more spiritual talks.”
What happens next is anyone’s guess. Some are hoping that by keeping up the pressure, the Obama administration will rescind the HHS’s contraception mandate. Others are hoping for legislative efforts to amend the law at the state and federal levels. All are saying that the first step is prayer, followed by action if, as the children sang, we are asking "God bless America". Nobody in attendance wants to see religious hospitals and schools shut down, but they do admit that it’s possible that it may come to that.
In the meantime, there is work to be done, and it starts on our knees.