By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published July 5, 2012
Nearly 1,000 people gathered under threatening skies at Marist School June 22 as part of a nationwide series of rallies in support of religious freedom.
The Stand Up for Religious Freedom Rally, an ecumenical gathering, featured Catholic and Protestant speakers, along with political figures. Speakers’ remarks were repeatedly interrupted by applause and standing ovations from the fervent crowd.
First seated in the sweltering outdoor bleachers of Marist stadium, people were quickly moved into the gymnasium as thunderstorms approached. The makeshift loudspeakers and packed gym didn’t dampen spirits, however.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, the first of several speakers, said that the key issue the U.S. bishops are highlighting is the attempt by the federal government “to impose a governmental definition on what is meant by the practice of religion.”
“Religious liberty is more than the freedom to worship,” Archbishop Gregory said.
Regulations set up in 2012 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services “define religious organizations so narrowly,” he said, that “most religious organizations will be left to choose between which religious teachings the government will allow them to follow.”
The “radically more restrictive” definition of religious groups has come about, he said, as part of a recent HHS mandate.
The regulations create “a phantom ‘religious exemption’” that only applies if a religious group employs only members of its own faith and serves only members of its own faith, Archbishop Gregory said.
That definition is in conflict with the essence of Christianity and with the essence of many other religions, he said.
“Our religious tradition demands that we care for all people, not just those who are Catholic. If we restricted our care to those of our own traditions, we would betray the very teaching of Jesus,” he said.
“The exercise of religious liberty is not confined to the interior of the church, the temple, the synagogue or the mosque,” he said. Instead, he said, religious faith for thousands of years has been exercised through acts of service and acts of charity to those most in need.
Catholic ministries and agencies employ hundreds of Georgians, both Catholic and non-Catholic, and “serve thousands of people without regard to their religious beliefs,” Archbishop Gregory said.
“That is how Jesus Christ teaches us to serve,” he said. “This is how we live our Catholic faith and government should protect that exercise of religion, not create burdens to the exercise of our faith.”
The purpose of the rally was to inspire citizens to get involved, whether it be by contacting elected officials, spreading awareness to others in the community or joining in prayer for community and political leaders to fight for religious liberty.
“At Marist this evening we are having a rally for religious liberty, which is wonderfully invigorating and also concerning at the same time,” U.S. Rep. Tom Price said just prior to the rally. Price was one of the speakers for the evening’s event.
“It’s invigorating because people are going to come out, American citizens are going to come out, to celebrate one of the wonderful founding principles of our great country: that is, religious liberty,” he said. “It’s concerning because clearly over the last couple of years we’ve seen an increase in an affront to that religious liberty, directly from Washington.”
Other speakers at the event included Sen. Johnny Isakson, Jackie Sample, a student at Georgia Tech, the Rev. Jay Hackett, associate pastor of Peachtree Corners Baptist Church, and Dr. Alveda King, the niece of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and founder of King for America.
The rally was held in conjunction with the Fortnight for Freedom, an effort by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to call Catholics to prayer and civic action in defense of religious freedom from June 21 to July 4.
“This is our American heritage, our most cherished freedom,” states a USCCB document on the Fortnight for Freedom. “If we are not free in our conscience and our practice of religion, all other freedoms are fragile. If our obligations and duties to God are impeded, or even worse, contradicted by the government, then we can no longer claim to be a land of the free.”
During the June 22 rally, the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses in the U.S. Bill of Rights were often cited and quoted by speakers in support of religious liberty: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
“It is important that we have events like this to bring clarity to the debate and to make sure that our people know and understand that this is a war of words,” said Catherine Davis, founder of The Restoration Project, an organization focused on informing, educating and activating citizens on the impact of public policy on life and the family.
“It is extremely important to rally the people. It is extremely important to pull us together to see that we are not alone,” Davis added.
The enthusiasm of the crowd was seen and heard by the speakers as bouts of applause and cheers often erupted during the event, many standing to show their support while others waved signs reading, “Defend the First Amendment” and “Respect Religious Freedom.”
The blend of inspiring speeches, prayer and song left participants excited and encouraged to continue the discussion in their own communities and become involved.
“We have to stand up for religious liberty,” said Martha Zoller, a Gainesville resident who hosts a daily radio talk show on WXKT. “I’m so happy that this big event has come into play for today.”
“Join in prayer that all our citizens may come to a greater appreciation of our religious heritage and seek ways to live in such a way that all citizens of the world may live in the harmony and freedom God intended for every human person,” said Archbishop Gregory.
“In recent days other religious bodies including the Southern Baptist Convention and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations have joined their voices to the growing chorus of people of faith in demanding a change in the requirements of the HHS mandate to preserve the heritage that is deeply American so that religious liberty will not become a victim to the decisions of a government agency,” he said.