MADISON -- Rallies for religious freedom were held in 158 cities across the United States June 8, drawing more than 60,000 participants in protest against the U.S. government's intrusion into religious freedom through a recent federal Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate.
In downtown Madison, the Stand Up for Religious Freedom rally was held outside the federal courthouse, drawing an estimated 300 protesters. Rallies also took place in the Wisconsin cities of La Crosse, Eau Claire, Milwaukee, Stevens Point, and Green Bay.
Organized by the Pro-Life Action League in Chicago and Citizens for a Pro-Life Society, based in Michigan, the focus of the nationwide rallies was the HHS mandate that would require all employers, with narrow exemptions that would exclude many religious employers, to provide free health insurance coverage for contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortion-inducing drugs contrary to Church teaching.
'We are all Catholics now'
The nationwide rallies, which took place both March 23 and June 8, are not entirely about the Catholic objections. Speakers have included Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and even one pagan high priest. As former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee recently declared in response to the HHS mandate's incursion into religious freedom, "We are all Catholics now."
Despite defenders of the HHS mandate frequently turning the debate into a question of "access to contraceptives," speakers at the Madison rally, who included Matt Sande of Pro-Life Wisconsin, State Senator Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend), and Sr. Maria Christi of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, were quick to reiterate that this is a religious liberty issue. The lawsuits recently filed in 43 states against the federal government have cited concerns about religious liberty and undue government interference, and not against contraception itself or the other objectionable aspects of the mandate.
"When we lose value of human life and we are told by the HHS what we must do in our religiously-based organizations, schools, ministries -- you call them what you will -- about contraception, mark my words, this time it's contraception, who knows what it will be next time they get ready to rule like that?" Julaine Appling, CEO of the Christian-based Wisconsin Family Council, said at the Madison rally.
Keeping state out of church
The first amendment of the U.S. Constitution begins "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," reminded Joseph Leone, a local Catholic lawyer. "It does not say that there is a wall or separation between church and state. It doesn't say that you have to check your religious objections at the door when you walk out of the house in the morning. And, more importantly, it does not say that when you go in public that you cannot exercise your religious conscience in the public sphere either alone, or in a group like we are today, or as part of a corporate entity like a school or a hospital."
The constitution protects us as we put our faith into practice in the public sphere. The ubiquitous expression "a wall between church and state" in fact comes from an 1802 letter by Thomas Jefferson, Leone said, and was famously reintroduced by John F. Kennedy (JFK) in his run-up for the 1962 presidential elections when he said, "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute."
"Fine," Leone said. "Let's take JFK at his word: if there's an absolute wall between church and state, why is the HHS trying to mandate a set of rules that interfere with my exercise of my religion?"
Interceding for persecutors
About a dozen protesters from the Freedom from Religion Foundation attended the rally with signs saying "Quit the Church" and bearing messages in favor of the HHS mandate and free contraception.
At the close of the rally's speeches, Fr. Rick Heilman, pastor of St. Ignatius Parish, Mt. Horeb, and St. Mary Parish, Pine Bluff, led those gathered in a prayer. After praying the "Our Father," he asked everyone to turn towards and pray another "Our Father" for the protesters.
"It's obvious they don't have the gift of faith, and it's such a precious gift," Father Heilman said of the protesters after they had departed during the closing Chaplet of Divine Mercy. "It's devastating when you see people like that, who haven't found the joy. And so that's why I'm always saying we've got to stand in the gap and be their intercessors."
Father Heilman, who that day published his book Church Militant Field Manual: Special Forces Training for the Life in Christ, frequently leads and encourages public prayer as a force for good. Beginning June 21, during the Fortnight for Freedom, and taking place every Thursday through November 1, he and Franciscan Friar of Our Lady of Good Success Father Isaac Mary Relyea will be leading Rosary Rallies at the southwest corner of the State Capitol (end of State St.).
As we stand up for our religious freedom, we should pray for those who are on the other side of the issue, Father Heilman said. "We don't want to stand and shout them down; we need to pray for them because they don't have that supernatural gift of faith."