Rallying against what protesters perceive is government infringement on religious freedoms, 500 people gathered on the lawn of the Lucas County Courthouse on Friday to oppose the Obama Administration's health-care mandate.
"The price of freedom is eternal vigilance," said Bishop Leonard Blair of the Toledo Catholic Diocese, quoting Thomas Jefferson, "and that is why you are here today and I am here today."
The predominantly Catholic crowd held signs proclaiming "Life & Liberty" and "Stand Up for Religious Freedom," clapping and cheering for the speakers, who decried the mandate requiring all employers to provide, without a co-pay, contraceptives, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs to employees.
Catholic doctrine opposes contraceptives and sterilization, asserting that they undermine God's purpose for sex, which is procreation. The church also is unequivocally opposed to abortion and abortifacients, citing the sanctity of human life.
Bishop Blair, the keynote speaker at the noon rally, said he perceives a "very frightening" erosion of religious liberty in America today that poses a threat to all religions and volunteer groups, not just the Roman Catholic Church.
"First of all, it's not about the religious freedom of Catholics only, but all of those who recognize that their cherished beliefs might be next on the block," the bishop said.
And it's not about access to contraception, Bishop Blair asserted, adding that "contraception is ubiquitous and inexpensive in our country even when it's not provided by the church's hand or with the church's funds."
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been strident in its opposition to the health-care mandate ever since the Department of Health and Human Services issued the new rules on Jan. 20 as part of the Affordable Care Act. One point of contention is the government's limited exemption for the coverage, affecting only religious groups that hire and serve those who share the same religious beliefs. That excludes the vast majority of Catholic hospitals and universities.
Health and Human Services offered a compromise on Feb. 10 in which the disputed health-care provisions would be offered by insurers, rather than directly by employers.
But Catholic bishops reject that proposal, saying it does nothing to address the "deeper concerns about trespassing upon religious freedom," and that it does not help the many Catholic institutions that are self-insured.
Most of the speakers at Friday's rally called for the Obama Administration to rescind its new policies, which are to take effect Aug. 1, 2013, for employers that do not already provide contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacients.
"We need religious freedom for everyone," said Sister Cecilia Mary Sartorius, mother superior of the Little Sisters of the Poor in Oregon. "Our First Amendment guarantees this right for us, and I stand here to protect that right. … We believe that this mandate violates our individual and collective religious liberty and freedom of conscience."
The Rev. Mark Hodges, pastor of St. Stephen Orthodox Church in Lima, Ohio, gave a fiery reading of a statement from the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of America.
"The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion," Father Hodges said. "This freedom is transgressed when a religious institution is required to pay for 'contraceptive services' including abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization services that directly violate their religious convictions."
Deacon Mike Learned of Annunciation radio, WNOC-FM, 89.7, which organized the downtown rally, said the fight is not about politics but "a movement within the hearts of people."
"My friends, if we don't think there's such a thing as spiritual warfare, we either have no faith or we have our heads stuck in the sand. We are fighting against the prince of lies here," he said, a reference to the devil. "If we don't stand up against this mandate, no one else will."
Another rally speaker, Dr. Brian Burke, wearing a lab coat, said he fears that it is just a matter of time before the government forces him to perform sterilizations and abortions in violation of his religious beliefs.
"This mandate is not about medicine. This mandate is about the erosion of liberty and conscience rights in the United States," he said.
The rally was one of many across the nation at the noon hour.
Frank Lenhart, 80, of Berkey said he attended the rally because he believes that President Obama "is trying to destroy Christianity. I don't care what he says; what he does is an entirely different thing."
Tim Krugh, 58, a lawyer from Millbury and an evangelical Protestant, said he is grateful to see Bishop Blair and the Catholic Church taking the lead on such an important issue.
"It has nothing to do with what faith group you're in. I believe there's an attack by the government and this administration on basic constitutional rights and the rights of conscience," he said.
"The government is forcing programs that are directly contrary to established Christian beliefs. It's hard to believe that we're facing it here in this country."
Not everyone in the crowd opposed the new mandate.
Brandi Meyer, 32, of Toledo shouted "Stop lying!" at one of the rally speakers.
"If they're stopping people from having contraceptives available to them, that's forcing their religious beliefs on everybody," Ms. Meyer said afterward. "They're doing the opposite of what they're saying."
Also protesting at the rally, but for a different reason, was Mike Drabik of Toledo. He shouted several times at Bishop Blair when the bishop began to speak, but was quickly quieted by a contingent of nuns and volunteers who encircled him.
Afterward, Mr. Drabik said he supports the U.S. bishops' stance against the health-care mandate, but he is upset that Catholic bishops are "bullying victims of clerical sexual abuse."
"I felt I had to say something. It's such a contradiction to be talking about the rights of the unborn and then trample all over these helpless abuse victims and treat them like dirt," Mr. Drabik said.
Contact David Yonke at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6154.