Hundreds protest HHS mandate at religious liberty rally
By Nissa LaPoint
A public outcry over national religious liberty abuses made a return visit to the state Capitol steps last week when people of all faiths rallied in protest of a federal mandate and despaired of its consequences.
Hundreds stood on the west side of the Capitol midday March 23 in Denver in conjunction with 139 other cities that participated in the Nationwide Rally for Religious Freedom.
The rallies organized by the Pro-Life Action League and the Citizens for a Pro-Life Society drew families, Catholic bishops, religious and people of all ages who called for the withdrawal of a federal mandate requiring many religious institutions to provide contraceptive coverage in employees’ health insurance plans.
Opponents of the mandate said it violates the First Amendment, which protects people from government restrictions on the free exercise and expression of religion.
“The very fact that the government has ruled to regulate religious practices shows that the government at all levels has crossed that wall of separation (between church and state),” Sen. Tim Neville, R-Jefferson, told the crowd.
Making an official statement on behalf of apostolic administrator Bishop James Conley of the Denver Archdiocese, Chancellor J.D. Flynn spoke about the need to be educated about the law and the Catholic faith.
The nation’s rights, he said, don’t come from the U.S. Constitution.
“We get our religious liberty and freedom and justice from God,” Flynn said. “If we want to stop what’s happening now we need to return our country to a country which respects the role of God and the role of religion in society.”
The rally followed continuing debates over the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Jan. 20 decision that religious institutions have a year to adapt to a health care reform bill’s mandate requiring insurance coverage of birth control for free.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops spoke out against the mandate because of the Church’s foundational belief that human life is sacred and begins at the moment of conception. The federal demand that the Church’s hospitals, universities and other institutions provide contraceptives, sterilizations and abortifacients violates these deeply held moral convictions.
Many said at the rally—that at times turned to discussion about pro-life issues—that the mandate is not only a debate over contraception but about the freedom to practice one’s faith.
In his opening comments, Father Carlos Alvarez of the Pueblo Diocese said the human person exists for the gift and goodness of human nature.
“We see in the (Department of) Health and Human Service’s mandate a great enemy of the human nature and of the human person,” Father Alvarez said. “And it blocks our human rights and our conscience against the very fabric and founding documents of our country.”
One speaker at the rally, who was identified as Catholic, said she never fears man and will not give up fighting against the federal mandate.
“I will never comply. I will never submit. I will never renounce Christ,” said Ann Barnhardt, who owns a Lone Tree-based brokerage company. “Confiscate my estate, throw me in prison, hang me at noon on the town square … I cannot be intimidated and I cannot be coerced to violate my conscience, because I fight under the banner of Jesus Christ.”
Another speaker, associate professor Christian Brugger of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, said the alternatives that Catholic institutions face if the mandate is upheld are detrimental.
If the mandate is not revoked, he said, religious institutions may choose to close down, cease to offer employees insurance or acquiesce to the mandate.
If a faith-based institution acquiesces, it may then be forced to remove its Catholic affiliation, Brugger explained, which may not be limited to the nation’s 570 Catholic hospitals, 230 faith-based religious colleges and universities and 15,000 Catholic high schools, he said.
“Then what happens is the largest network of Christian institutionalized education and hospital care in human history will have its religious identity taken away,” Brugger said. “Now
if you force those institutions to cooperate with the mandate, the witness value to the respect of human life to marital chastity to the dignity of procreation is going to be irreparably compromised.”
If these institutions are shut down, he said, it would result in a major loss of the Church’s mission to spread the word of God in response to Christ’s command to “go and evangelize all nations.”
In consideration of the consequences, the USCCB called on faithful to pray and fast for religious liberty. (See related story on Page 6.) Apostolic administrator Bishop James Conley has asked Catholics of the Denver Archdiocese to pray and fast on March 30.
“The thing that we need to do before anything else is pray,” Flynn emphasized.
Religious liberty advocates also asked that people call their representatives or speak at a Senate committee hearing at the Capitol March 26 in support of state Senate Memorial Bill 12-003. The bill entreats the U.S. Congress and the President Barack Obama to enact the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, which allow for great religious conscience exemption from the mandate.