Thousands flock to Topeka in the name of religious freedom
by Jessica Langdon
TOPEKA — Sweltering triple-digit temperatures had nothing on the fire that was building inside thousands of people gathered outside the Kansas state Capitol.
“We come here today not as Republicans or Democrats,” Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann told the crowd at the statewide Rally for Religious Freedom on June 29.
“We come here,” the archbishop continued, “as Americans and people of faith.”
He hoped inspiration at the rally would spark these Kansans — some 4,000 of them, according to the Kansas Catholic Conference — to spread the word at home and in their communities.
“We hope people go away perhaps better informed and motivated to talk to others and speak to others about the importance of protecting what our forefathers and foremothers sacrificed so much for us to have — religious freedom and the protection of conscience,” said Archbishop Naumann.
Defending religious freedom
The rally, which was part of the “Fortnight for Freedom,” a two-week nationwide push for prayer and education called for by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, focused on defending religious freedoms that the bishops say are now under attack.
The principal offender, although there are others, is the mandate announced in January by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
The mandate requires employers to include contraception, including some abortion-inducing drugs, in the health insurance coverage they provide their employees. The use of any contraception runs counter to church teaching.
Catholic colleges, hospitals and charities are not exempt, and U.S. bishops were not satisfied with a change that allowed insurance companies to pick up the costs when employers have objections.
A call to rally
The four Kansas bishops invited all people of faith to Topeka for the rally.
Religious rights are a “bedrock foundational value of American citizenship,” said Bishop Edward Weisenburger of the Diocese of Salina in his remarks before the rally.
He expressed concerns about government attempts to push religion inside the walls of churches, and about changing what used to be “freedom of religion” to merely “freedom of worship.”
He sees an “erosion of rights” that is “startling.”
And this is not just a Catholic issue. People of many faiths have spoken out, he said.
“This is a freedom issue,” agreed Erica Oliphant, a parishioner of St. Joseph Parish in Wichita. “Everybody should take interest in this.”
“We come today as men and women of faith desiring to live out that faith in a way that would honor and glorify Your name,” prayed Dr. Timothy Boyd of the Kansas-Nebraska Convention of Southern Baptists in his opening prayer.
The rally came a day after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.
With the health care act left standing, legal concerns raised by a number of Catholic entities are now all the more pressing to church leaders.
Keynote speaker Cathy Ruse, senior fellow for legal studies with the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., said the lawsuit filed by 43 Catholic organizations was “one of the largest legal actions to defend religious liberty in U.S. history.” The questions raised in those suits will be addressed at a future date.
“It didn’t have to be this way,” Ruse said. After all, contraceptives are readily available and widely used.
“So how can anyone say there’s a contraceptive crisis?” she asked. “A crisis so great that it calls out for federal intervention — intervention that must require Catholics to give up our religion?”
Thinking nationally, locally
Gov. Sam Brownback, in his remarks, urged the crowd to continue fighting the mandate for as long as it takes.
“This unconscionable mandate must not be allowed to stand,” said the governor. “And by your prayers and works, it will not be allowed to stand.”
State Rep. Jerry Henry, D-Atchison, received applause when he told the rally-goers about the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act.
It was introduced this past legislative session and passed the Kansas House of Representatives, but is stalled in the Senate, he said.
“The act established that a government shall not burden a person’s right to freely exercise an individual’s religious belief,” he said. “The next legislative session in 2013 should continue to make every effort possible to see that this religious freedom act is adopted.”
Reasons to rally
Catholic women care about this issue, said Katie Stuchlik, a parishioner of Sacred Heart Church in Emporia, adding that not everyone believes contraceptives are a form of medicine.
She attended the rally with her family.
“We’re also tired of the media always portraying things as a bunch of crotchety old Catholic bishops pretending they know what women believe and how they feel and oppressing us,” said Stuchlik. “So we felt it was our turn to show our beliefs and what we felt in a very public and vocal way.”
Nor did attendees feel their obligation ended when the rally was over.
Lindsay Drouhard, who will be a sophomore at Benedictine College in Atchison this fall, hopes people will keep thinking about religious liberty and the HHS mandate.
“Just talk to your representatives,” she said. “See if we can get this thing repealed. Just try your hardest.”
A message from Kansas
Rosie Cresswell, a parishioner of St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City, Kan., hopes people take away from this that they can’t take their freedoms for granted.
She was particularly inspired, she said, by Archbishop Naumann’s closing remarks.
“Let the cry go forth from Topeka, Kansas, to the president, to the secretary of Health and Human Services to the Congress to the Supreme Court,” he said. “We will not accept, we will not acquiesce, we will not tolerate our liberties to be diminished or robbed from us.
“We will pray, we will advocate, we will vote, and we will never, never, never give up our religious liberty and our conscience rights.”