ROCHESTER — Hundreds of local protesters showed their opposition March 23 to federal efforts to compel religious institutions to provide employee insurance coverage for artificial contraception and sterilizations.
While a rally in Rochester featured impassioned speakers and faith leaders who critiqued what they called government intrusion on religious freedom, a rally in Canandaigua featured silent prayer and a procession from St. Mary Church to the Ontario County Courthouse. The Rochester rally was one of the national Stand Up For Religious Freedom rallies that took place at noon March 23 in 100 cities nationwide.
The dispute over religious freedom was touched off by a federal rule related to the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which requires an unspecified range of preventive services for women to be included in employee health-insurance coverage. In determining which services should be included under the act’s provisions, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services adopted recommendations from the Institute of Medicine that sterilization and artificial contraceptives, including those that can act as abortifacients, should be covered free of charge to employees.
The mandate from HHS included an exemption for religious employers, but only those whose function is to teach their religious values and that both primarily employ and serve those of their own religion. Critics charge that the exemption is so narrowly drawn that it excludes charities, schools, hospitals and a host of other religious institutions.
In February, the Obama administration responded to sustained protests of the HHS mandate by releasing a plan to compel insurance companies — rather than employers — to pay for preventive services for employes of religious institutions that would not be exempt from the mandate. Yet critics responded that some church institutions are self-insured, meaning they would still have to foot the bill for coverage, and that insurance companies may still pass on costs to all their customers.
At the Rochester rally, Jann Armantrout, life-issues coordinator for the Diocese of Rochester, said that the HHS mandate is an example of what she sees as increasing attempts to target Christians through economic exclusion, social isolation and a banishment from public discourse.
"We are Christians who are here at the beginning of this oppression," Armantrout said. "We are at a precarious point in our history."
In a free society, Armantrout argued, religious freedoms are not something that government takes but are that which the people willingly yield.
"It is we the people who relinquish limits on freedoms to foster social order," Armantrout said.
She pointed out that in 2011 the Obama administration also ended a longstanding contract with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to aid human-trafficking victims. The contract was terminated, she said, "because of our refusal to abort the children of sex-trafficking victims."
Armantrout noted that the principle underpinning the Catholic Church’s teachings on life is recognition of the inviolable human dignity present from conception until natural death. Catholics will have to answer to a higher authority if they have disregarded their consciences and violated their faith, she said.
"We can’t subjugate the teachings of our church for this secular reality," Armantrout said.
Father Tony Mugavero, pastor of Holy Apostles Parish in Rochester, noted that the HHS mandate came just weeks after U.S. Supreme Court justices unanimously decided that churches were entitled to make employment decisions without interference from the government.
In slamming the religious exemption to the HHS mandate, Father Mugavero noted that Jesus made no distinction among those he served, and said Jesus’ followers should not do so either.
"Does the government want us to stop serving those who are non-Catholic?" Father Mugavero asked rhetorically. "One-sixth of all health care (services are provided by) Catholic institutions. Is that the way we are going to give better health care to the people of this country, especially for those people who can’t afford it?"
The priest encouraged those attending the rally to use technology and social-media outlets to inform their elected officials and friends about their opposition to the mandate.
"This is not about contraception accessibility," Father Mugavero said. "Every drugstore can give out contraception at a very low cost. It’s about the government taking away freedom of conscience and forcing their will on us."
In addition to Armantrout and Father Mugavero, the Rochester rally involved speakers representing several religions and drew an ecumenical crowd.
"This is not a Catholic issue," said the Rev. Duane Motley, founder of New Yorker’s Family Research Foundation and senior lobbyist with New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms. "This is a religious freedom issue, so we need to stand together, or they will take all of our religious freedoms."
The Rev. Mike Warren of Rescue Rochester drew laughs when he pointed out that the protest was taking place "where State and Church intersect," on the lawn of Rochester’s Federal Building at the intersection of State and Church streets. He called for those attending the rally to voice their opposition and vote their consciences.
"We are at our best when we find ourselves under the pressure that causes us to stand for what we believe in," the Rev. Warren said.
Some speakers decried the HHS department’s classification of artificial contraception and sterilization as aspects of preventative care. Several people carried signs with the words "Pregnancy is not a disease."
"Last time I checked, babies were a gift from God," said speaker Jennifer Lochmeyer, who was representing the St. Thomas More Lawyer’s Guild.
Many at the rally said that people throughout the country have not been informed about the implications of the HHS rule.
"We believe this is important for our entire country," Karen Marsh of Greece, a parishioner of Holy Cross Church in Charlotte, said after the rally. "It will affect everybody. This is a crossroad for our country, and everybody needs to get informed."
Rose Mary Mantelli, who helped Dr. Barbara Fredericks organize the Rochester rally, said a representative counted more than 600 attendees.
Canandaigua’s religious freedom rally drew about 500 people, according to organizers. That rally, organized by Canandaigua Deacon Claude Lester, included a silent prayer, a procession to the Ontario County Courthouse, and the posting of quotations about religious freedom, values and virtues at St. Mary Church.