By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published March 29, 2012
Catholics and others crowded the Georgia statehouse plaza on Friday, March 23, and spilled across Washington Street at a rally for religious freedom.
Standing under umbrellas in the spring rain, speakers passionately opposed a recent U.S. Health and Human Services’ mandate, which requires health insurance plans to include and pay for employees’ contraception, including abortion-inducing drugs, and sterilization. Catholic leaders object that it will force most Catholic institutions, including universities, hospitals and charities, to provide and pay for services that the Church morally opposes.
Barbara Golder, who attends Our Lady of the Mount Church, in Lookout Mountain, said she opposes the mandate because it forces her to participate when it is against her religious values.
“This is making me participate in something, forces me to subsidize something that is egregiously wrong,” she said. “They are just ordinary people out here making their sentiments known.”
Friday was a nationwide day of protest. Rallies like the one in Atlanta took place in nearly 150 places across the country. Pat Chivers, the communications director for the Atlanta Archdiocese, estimated more than 400 people participated in the downtown rally. Another rally took place in Athens.
Crowds held small American flags and signs of “We will not comply,” “Religious Freedom Now,” and “Stop Obama’s HHS Mandate.” There were shouts of “Amen” and the singing of “Amazing Grace” during the hour rally.
Earlier this year, the Obama administration issued the rule that the Affordable Care Act would require employers, including most religious organizations, to provide health insurance that included contraception and sterilization in free services for all employees.
U.S. bishops have been outspoken in their opposition to the mandate. Some have said the mandate may force the closure of Catholic institutions to avoid participating. Heavy fines are to be levied on any employer who does not comply. The administration gave religious institutions one year to find a way to comply.
The religious exemption to the mandate is so narrow that it excludes most Catholic institutions, the bishops say. In addition, it puts the government in the position of defining what a religious organization is, they say, and violates the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.
Atlanta Auxiliary Bishop Luis R. Zarama, standing under a temporary rain shelter, read a letter from Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory.
“We ask the administration to show real leadership and wisdom, and to reverse this decision in light of the broad concerns that are being expressed across the nation about religious liberty and conscience. We do so not simply because it is anti-Catholic, but because it is un-American,” he read.
Bishop Zarama said the new mandate is wrong because it leaves the decision to the government about what is a religious mission of a faith community.
“It is a dangerous precedent that concerns many who do not share our teaching on contraception, but value religious ministries that serve the poor or believe that government does not have the power to decide what is religious and what is not,” he read.
Crowds cheered Amanda Figeredo, a freshman at Georgia Tech and pro-life activist, as she criticized the attitude she’s seen at her university where students are held to low standards of behavior.
They skip the counseling but hand out contraceptives as students head off for spring break, which won’t protect them from sexually transmitted disease, or a broken heart, she said.
“They do not protect me from being objectified rather than respected as a woman,” she said.
The university claims it wants students to succeed, but it acts as if knowing the students will fail, she said. There is another way that “challenges us to rise up” and act with responsibility and self-control, she said.
Growing up in the Middle East, Figeredo said she is now “confused” to see the U.S. government trample on her religious freedom. In her passionate speech, she said, “Doing nothing is not an option.”
Andrea Measor, a member of St. Brigid Church, in Johns Creek, brought along two of her children to the lunchtime rally.
If you have a moral objection to something, she said, the government shouldn’t tell you to ignore it.
“I’m sick of hearing it’s about women’s rights and contraception. There’s no problem with access to contraception at all,” she said. “It’s about freedom.”
Measor said she was making a stand because she is tired of government reaching into her life.
“I don’t know what good it will do, but you have to start somewhere,” she said.
On the state level, Georgia is a state that requires employer health insurance to cover the cost of contraceptives, but the requirement does not apply to self-insured employee benefit plans, which is how the Archdiocese of Atlanta provides health coverage to its employees, according to Frank Mulcahy, executive director of the Georgia Catholic Conference.
The federal HHS mandate did not provide an exemption for self-insured entities, he said.
Efforts are underway in the Georgia General Assembly to create a religious exemption in the state. Sen. Josh McKoon, of Columbus, said a measure to reverse the current requirement of contraceptive coverage passed the Senate and is held up in the Georgia House.
Other speakers at the rally were attorney Mia Reini and activist Catherine Davis.