As one of approximately 140 such demonstrations around the country, on March 23 a throng of about 800 gathered for a noonday rally at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, the birthplace of American liberty, to protest what they firmly believe is an infringement on their freedom of religion – the new requirement imposed by the Obama administration that free contraception be included in some form in all employee health care plans, without a conscience clause to exclude employers who oppose contraception on religious grounds.
As participants filed into the square they might have noticed the imposing granite monument at the entrance emblazoned in bold letters with the words of the First Amendment to the Constitution which begins “Congress shall pass no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;…”
Although the rally was sponsored by the Respect Life Office of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in conjunction with organizations connected with the pro-life movement, it did have an ecumenical aspect.
Identical twin brothers, self-described as “womb mates,” Father Paul Schenck of Harrisburg, and the Rev. Rob Schenck of Washington, D.C., were among the speakers. Their paternal Jewish grandfather migrated from Russia, fleeing from religious and civil persecution; Father Paul Schenck is a former Episcopalian priest and married father of eight; the Rev. Rob Schenck is an Evangelical minister.
“There are bright lines between Church and state,” Rev. Rob Schenck declared. “The Church and state each have their clearly delineated competences and responsibilities. It is the Church through the Gospel that helps to shape and form the conscience.”
Contrary to what pro choice advocates preach, it was obvious many women do not subscribe to the new mandate – a majority of those in attendance at the rally were, in fact, women.
“This mandate is unconstitutional and it will not stand,” said Ashley McGuire, up from Washington, D.C., representing the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and proudly in her seventh month of pregnancy with her first child.
Michelle Griffin, a registered nurse at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a member of Holy Cross Parish in Mount Airy who was passing out literature at the rally, said, “It is important to me as a health care provider to have those conscience clauses that will protect me as an individual in accordance with my conscience and not having to go against my conscience.”
Kathryn Slaats, who came to the rally with a busload of people from St. Patrick Parish in Malvern, speaking for her group, said, “We want to tell the government not to tread on our religious freedoms. We must organize, contribute and fight for the right to worship God the way we choose to do so.”
Dr. George Isajiw, a Delaware County physician and former president of the Philadelphia Guild of the Catholic Medical Association, attended in support of a conscience clause in the new mandate but also because “one of the greatest health dangers to women is the use of hormonal contraception,” he said.
However, the purpose of the rally was not to question the safety of birth control methods or whether they should be legal, it was to assert they should not be mandated.
Cathy Ruse, one of the speakers from the Family Research Council and a graduate of Georgetown University, took issue with a present Georgetown student who asserted before a congressional hearing the high cost of birth control pills was burdensome to students.
“Target and Walmart sell birth control pills for $9 a month,” she said. “It’s not a victims’ issue, it’s not a women’s issue; it’s a freedom issue.”
Although the latest proposal by the Department of Health and Human Services does exempt churches from the mandate by passing responsibility on to the health care insurance providers, it does not exempt charities, schools, universities and hospitals that are under the auspices of the Catholic Church or other denominations that object to it or individuals who might object. It also forces coverage for abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization, which is why the bishops are speaking out and rallies are being held.
“This is telling the (Obama) administration that people of faith in the City of Brotherly love will not back down,” said Steven Bozza, director of the archdiocesan Respect Life Office.