Kathy Nelson of Holy Name of Jesus in Medina is not a teacher. Yet, she felt compelled to act like one at the Federal Building in downtown St. Paul March 23. She joined an estimated crowd of 2,000 to stand up for religious freedom.
Nelson came with her friend, Sue Wagener of St. Mary of the Lake in Plymouth, to protest the Obama administration’s Health and Human Services mandate, which forces all employers, including most religious employers, to offer no-cost contraceptive coverage and sterilizations through their health plans even if it violates their beliefs.
“I want to educate people that it’s not about contraception, it’s about our religious rights and religious liberty,” said Nelson, who sat in the plaza holding a sign as people filed in for the noon rally. “We’ve got to educate the world. It’s happening right under our feet. We’ve got to stand up now.”
Nelson’s latter comment echoed the banner that hung at the rear of a platform from which featured speakers delivered remarks designed both to educate those in attendance and inspire them to action. It read: “Stand Up For Religious Freedom.”
One of the guest speakers was Bishop John Quinn of Winona. He led prayer at the start of the rally and spoke on behalf of the state’s bishops. Clearly, he was pleased by the size of the crowd gathered in the plaza of the federal building.
“How powerful a sign it is to see you all here. This is great. This says to the world that we care about religious freedom,” he said. “It’s time to take back our freedom, to be able to say we are faithful citizens, we are defending the constitution and we want our religious rights.”
The local gathering was part of a national effort, with rallies taking place in 143 cities across the country, according to Catholic News Service. The national “Stand Up for Religious Freedom” initiative was organized by Pro-Life Action League in Chicago and Citizens for a Pro-Life Society based in Michigan. In St. Paul, the rally was organized by Pro-Life Action Ministries, with executive director Brian Gibson also offering remarks.
Also speaking were Teresa Collett, professor of law at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul; the Rev. Maria Mitchell, associate pastor of Evangelist Crusaders; and Pastor Brad Brandon of Berean Bible Baptist Church in Hastings.
Also representing the bishops was Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the state’s bishops. He encouraged those in attendance to take concrete steps to oppose the mandate, outlined in a flyer that was distributed during the rally.
“This issue is not about contraception, it’s not about the church banning contraception, it’s not a war on women,” he said. “It’s not about access to health care, which the church has always supported. No, this issue is about government defining what constitutes religious freedom and religion, and that is wrong. It is about government denying basic civil rights, and that is wrong. And, it’s about government forcing us to buy a product that violates our conscience.
“For the first time in our nation’s history, the federal government is requiring people of faith to buy a product that violates their conscience, and that is wrong. It’s time for us to stand up right now and act.”
Feeling that sense of urgency were people like Robin and Brian Taaffe and Steve and Diane Kokesh, all of St. Stephen in Anoka. They held signs during the rally and sang the National Anthem along with the rest of the crowd at the start of the rally.
“We had to be here,”Robin Taaffe said. “We don’t feel that we have a choice. This is too critical.”
Added Steve: “We need to stop this assault on freedom, especially religious freedom. I think it is [also] an assault on the Catholic Church. I think this coming [presidential] election in November is going to be one of the most important and critical elections in the history of our republic.”