by Joe Bollig
TOPEKA — The six speakers gave the crowd plenty of reasons to cheer and applaud at the Rally for Religious Freedom on Feb. 17 at the state Capitol here.
One among them, however, nearly brought rally participants to tears. It was Barronelle Stutzman, a 71-year-old florist from Richland, Washington.
“You guys are awesome,” she said to cheering attendees when she stepped to the podium. “Thank you for having me [here]. It’s a pleasure to be here to tell you my story about how much it means to have religious freedom.”
The story she had to tell was anything but pleasurable.
Stutzman, a grandmother of 23 children, had quietly worked as a florist in her shop for 47 years. Soon after the state of Washington legalized same-sex marriage, a longtime customer came to her shop in 2013 to order flowers for his wedding to another man.
“As much as I enjoyed designing for Rob [Ingersoll] all these years, I couldn’t custom create something that went totally against my faith,” she said. “My faith teaches me that marriage is between a man and a woman, and it represents Christ and the church.”
She recommended three other florists to Ingersoll and thought they parted amicably. But within a week, the attorney general and the ACLU had filed a lawsuit against her.
“They not only sued me, but they sued my store,” said Stutzman through her tears. “I will not just lose my flower shop, but we will lose our life savings, our home and our retirement.”
Since then, Stutzman has been harassed and threatened and has had to take measures for her personal security.
“We were all in tears,” said rally-goer Chris Kopecky, a Kansas City-area attorney and member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Leawood. “It was a really strong speech and it hit home with a lot of folks.”
An estimated 1,500-plus people filled the space under the Capitol dome for the noontime rally, which was called not only to show support for religious liberty, but also to send a message to government officeholders.
The crowd not only filled the second floor but also lined the railing on the third floor and filled the overlooking alcoves on higher floors. The spaces and corridors were filled with cheers and applause.
“I have never seen a bigger rally at this statehouse than this one,” Gov. Brownback told rally-goers in his presentation. “It is fantastic, it is encouraging, and you’ve had speakers coast to coast here recognizing what’s taking place in the state of Kansas.”
Rep. Marin Kleeb, R-Overland Park, was also impressed as he made his way through the throng.
“We get a lot of groups here advocating for their positions, and I don’t think I’ve seen a larger turnout on any issue,” said Kleeb, a member of Church of the Ascension Parish in Overland Park.
The urgency to fight for religious liberty has never been greater, said Kopecky.
“There are some serious threats coming our direction, and have been for a few years,” said Kopecky. “We have to be vigilant and fight the good fight.”
The rally was sponsored by the Kansas Catholic Conference, the Concerned Women of America, the Family Policy Alliance of Kansas and the Faith, Family, Freedom Alliance of Kansas.
“The rally was a success because of all the people who put in so much time and effort,” said Michael Schuttloffel, executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference. “Jeanette Pryor on our staff was tremendous. Bill Scholl, archdiocesan social justice consultant, worked really hard on this and helped deliver a great turnout. The Knights of Columbus were incredibly helpful, and our coalition partners worked hard to bring non-Catholics to the rally. It was a team effort.”
Jim Congdon, lead pastor at Topeka Bible Church, gave the opening prayer. Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann gave the closing prayer. In attendance were Bishop Edward J. Weisenburger from the Diocese of Salina and Bishop Carl A. Kemme from the Diocese of Wichita.
In addition to Stutzman and Brownback, the rally speakers were Ryan Anderson from the Heritage Foundation; Everett Piper, president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University; Hernan Castano, senior pastor of Rivers of Oil Church in Houston; and Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life.
Sarah Swafford, a member of St. Benedict Parish in Atchison, was master of ceremonies. Michael Podrebarac, archdiocesan consultant for the office of liturgy and sacramental life, led the singing of “God Bless America.”