Thousands rallied for religious freedom June 8 at the Sandra Day O'Connor Federal Building. (J.D. Long-García/CATHOLIC SUN)

In spite of the sweltering mid-day heat, more than 1,000 Arizonans gathered in front of the Sandra Day O’Connor Federal Building in downtown Phoenix June 8 at the “Stand Up for Religious Freedom” rally to protest the HHS mandate.

The gathering was part of a protest that took place in 163 cities across the country. A panel of speakers at the Phoenix rally, including Baptist preacher C.T.Wright, spoke to an enthusiastic crowd that frequently erupted in cheers and applause.

Participants stood under umbrellas, many bearing signs protesting the HHS mandate. One man’s sign offered a free copy of the U.S. Constitution to Pres. Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder.

Ann Swaziek, who organized the rally, said the purpose of the event was to protest the “HHS mandate requiring health plans to provide free contraception, sterilization and abortion inducing drugs as preventive care and treats pregnancy and childbirth as a disease.”

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted opened and closed his remarks to the crowd by quoting from the recently released film “For Greater Glory” which chronicles the fight for religious freedom in Mexico in the 1920s.

Read: Bishop’s remarks from Stand Up for Religious Freedom Rally in Phoenix

The bishop quoted from Gen. Enrique Gorostieta Velarde’s speech to his troops about the nature of freedom, saying that, “Today we send a message to the president of our country and to the world, that freedom is not just a word for writers, politicians or fancy documents, it is our wives, it is our children, it is our homes, it is our faith, it is our life. It is not only our duty, it is our right.”

“Authentic health care prevents disease, saves lives and offers medical support to all, including unborn children and their mothers,” he said. “Authentic health care does kill anyone. It seeks first of all to do no harm.”

Catholic obstetrician-gynecologist William Chavira told the crowd that life and liberty are under attack and that he objected to the government’s attempt to interfere with his rights.

“I will not stand for it..for a government entity to impose what they define as religion or the practice of medicine on me. I will not tolerate it,” Chavira said.

He also pointed out the irony between the U.S. government’s reaction to the swine flu epidemic versus how it views contraceptives.

“Women die from the patch, they die from the birth control pill from clots, and all the FDA does is put a black box warning. Where is our respect and dignity for women?” Chavira asked.

Karen Williams, of the Silent No More Campaign, said she was once pro-choice and that she regrets the abortion she had in 1987. Abortion and contraception, she said, “fit together like a hand and glove.”

“Contraception teaches that women are play things that their bodies are objects to be used for sexual pleasure, that a women’s fertility is a diseased condition and must be treated with a drug,” Williams said. “Fifty-eight percent of abortions are a result of contraceptive failure.”

Melanie Pritchard, executive director of the Foundation for Life and Love, told the crowd about her experience with Catholic health care and the severe complications she experienced during childbirth that left her clinically dead for 10 minutes. Doctors worked tirelessly, she said, to save both her and her daughter.

“We knew in a Catholic health care facility that if there were ever any complications, that they would view both me and my unborn daughter as equally human and equally valuable,” Pritchard said.

She said the HHS mandate violates her rights.

“Supporters of the HHS mandate would have us believe that rejecting the mandate somehow we are waging a war on women…but giving women free access to abortifacients and birth control and sterilization is really the true war on women,” Pritchard said.

She also had a message for President Obama, politicians who support the HHS mandate and the media, “Hear me clearly,” Pritchard said. “I ask you to stop telling me the lie that this unconstitutional mandate that forces religious institutions to offer free access to anti-health, anti-motherhood, human-embryo-killing drugs is for me when really it’s against me.”

Kevin Judge, a St. Daniel’s parishioner, said he attended the rally with his 13-year-old son Patrick to protest the “HHS and the assault on the Catholic Church.”

“It’s about his future,” Judge said. “This is to make him realize what he’s about to lose if we don’t something about it.”

Christine Accurso, of St. Mary Magdalene, said she attended the rally because  she believes in religious freedom and wanted to “stand with all my Catholic brothers and sisters and our great shepherd, the bishop, to protest and stand up for what I believe in, which is life and liberty.”