Hundreds of Catholics and others concerned about attacks on religious liberties gathered Oct. 20 in front of the Sandra Day O’Connor Federal Court Building in downtown Phoenix to make their voices heard.
The rally was the third in Phoenix since March and was part of a nationwide effort in over 100 cities that amassed thousands of people who hope to focus attention on threats to religious freedom.
Galvanized by the HHS contraceptive mandate, participants came to pray, sing and hear a slate of speakers that ranged from clergy, politicians, attorneys and activists. The crowd held flags and placards with slogans such as “Vote Pro-life” and “Stop the HHS Mandate.”
JoAnna Wahlund of St. Clare of Assisi Parish in Surprise attended the rally with her husband and four children. “We came to support the rights of religious freedom,” Wahlund said. “Between the two of us, we’ve been to all three of the rallies so far.”
Rosalie Simoneau, a teenager who is a graduate of the Catholic Academy for Life Leadership program, a catechetical program in the Phoenix Diocese that trains teens in the Theology of the Body, was one of the speakers who energized rally participants.
“The Catholic Church has survived every government that has tried to destroy it,” Simoneau said. “I resent having to pump my body full of chemicals, sacrifice my fertility and support the killing of children in the womb so that I can have equality with men.”
Referring to politicians who hope that the voices of young people would be heard in upcoming elections, Simoneau said they should “be careful what they wish for… the pro-life, pro-religious freedom movement is full of young people who will live our lives according to our consciences and this November you will hear from us all, from every generation.”
Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of the Diocese of Phoenix noted that the desire to be free is deeply human and deeply American. The gift of freedom, he said, is God-given and comes with a duty to defend it when it comes under attack.
“We are here today because something un-American and dehumanizing is threatening our life together,” Bishop Olmsted said. “In the past, we treasured religious freedom. Now, we face unprecedented threats to this fundamental building block of American culture.”
Becky Bowers-Greene said that the HHS contraceptive mandate, which forces religious businesses and institutions to provide free contraceptives, sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs, constitutes an attack on the Catholic Church specifically and religious liberty in general.
“We’re under attack by an administration that believes all women are more interested in free stuff than their constitutional rights,” Bowers-Greene said. “We need to stand together as people of faith, because whether you agree or not with this particular religious belief, we can all agree that the government has no right to dictate religious belief.”
Shane Krauser, of the American Academy for Constitutional Education, said he believes that the HHS mandate is an attack on religious liberty and he thinks it will ultimately be found unconstitutional. Krauser is an adjunct professor of constitutional law and local talk show host.
“It’s a direct assault on liberty, it’s a direct assault on our republican form of government and we the people must stand up and make sure that our voices are heard,” Krauser said. “The government cannot come in and dictate how a church will run itself and it cannot force the church to buy into something that it fundamentally disagrees with.”
There’s something terribly wrong, he said, with a society that will not allow people to purchase a soda larger than 16 ounces, as in New York City, but at the same time, permits the taking of life [through abortion].
“I will tell you this. I am not Catholic, but you come after my Catholic brothers and sisters, and the giant will be awakened,” Krauser said.
Ron Johnson, executive director of the Arizona Catholic Conference, lauded the leadership of Bishop Olmsted as well as that of Rep. Debbie Leshko, a state legislator who endured a firestorm of criticism over her sponsorship of HB 2625. The bill was eventually signed into law and protects the religious liberty of employers who object to paying for contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs.
Five members of the Sons of Liberty Riders, clad in denim and leather, roared up on their motorcycles to join their voices to the crowd of protesters. Wendy Schops, the group’s spokeswoman and president, said they strongly believe in the cause of religious freedom.
“We try to get out to as many events as we can to stand up for the Constitution and the Bill of Rights,” Schops said. “We’re here to support this cause because we cannot allow this president to infringe on our constitutional rights.”