National rallies seek religious freedom restoration on March 23

On March 23, Catholics and other supporters of religious liberty will demonstrate outside federal buildings nationwide, demanding the withdrawal of the Obama administration's contraception mandate.

“We're going to have thousands of people across the country. It may even reach the tens-of-thousands,” said Pro-Life Action League Executive Director Eric Scheidler, whose group is joining with Citizens for a Pro-Life Society to organize the Nationwide Rally for Religious Freedom.

“We really want this to be both a grassroots effort across the nation, and also really a unified effort with a very clear message. And that message is, to stand up for religious freedom and stop Obama's HHS mandate.”

Supporters will spread the message in peaceful protests outside government buildings “from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine, and everywhere in between,” Scheidler told CNA on Feb. 27.

“We're really encouraging people to invite local religious leaders: not just Catholics, but Protestants, Jews, even Muslims, to participate as special speakers at the rallies as well.”

Scheidler stressed that opposition to the federal contraception mandate “really isn't just a Catholic issue. This is a direct attack on the constitutionally-protected right of religious organizations to define their own mission and purpose, which has been abrogated by the Obama administration.”

Organizers chose the March 23 date in order to hold the rally on the Friday closest to the Roman Catholic Church's celebration of the Annunciation.

In a coincidence Scheidler said was both unintended and providential, March 23 is also the date on which, in 1775, the American revolutionary Patrick Henry declared: “Give me liberty, or give me death!”

Organizers of the Nationwide Rally for Religious Freedom released a Feb. 27 declaration outlining their criticisms of the Health and Human Services mandate. The rule compels many religious groups to provide contraception, sterilization, and abortion-causing drugs through their health care plans.

Scheidler and Monica Miller, the director of Citizens for a Pro-Life Society, explained that they were standing against “the federal government's definition of what constitutes a religious institution,” through the “narrowly constructed 'exemption' to the HHS mandate” for certain groups.

They also oppose the mandate “forcing all businesses – not just religious institutions – to provide coverage of contraception, sterilizations, and abortion-inducing drugs, if even doing so violates their own moral convictions on these matters.”

Finally, they noted that the rule goes wrong by defining contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs as “preventative care” – a classification that “treats pregnancy and childbirth as a disease.”

In his work for the Pro-Life Action League, Eric Scheidler has taken an exceptionally strong stance against contraception, and the “contraceptive mindset,” as the root cause of many abortions. He believes the contraception mandate may be a learning opportunity for non-Catholics in the pro-life movement.

“A 2,000-year old institution, that is still here today, has this teaching – that it has always had,” Scheidler noted, reflecting on the Church's counter-cultural witness against contraception. “I hope this will be a teaching moment.”

“We're not the Amish, who have some kind of problem with the modern world,” he pointed out. “Catholics are fully participating in all aspects of the 21st century” – while maintaining their ancient and consistent teaching against the intentional sterilization of sexual acts.

Scheidler, an Eastern-rite Catholic who rejoined the Church as an adult, hopes that the outcry over the mandate will also prompt “deep reflection on the part of (Catholic) bishops,” about their obligation to teach clearly on the subject of contraception.

“They really have not stepped up, over the past 40 years, to defend the Church's ageless teaching on contraception the way that they could have – particularly in the wake of 'Humanae Vitae.'”

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That 1968 encyclical of Pope Paul VI, reaffirming the teaching against contraception, provoked controversy and even prompted some departures from the Church.

But Scheidler recalled that its teaching actually brought him back to Christ.

“I was an atheist when I walked into my first Natural Family Planning class, about 15 years ago. I walked out of that first class really intrigued by what the science might be able to show me, and willing to go along with the class even though I thought the religious part of it was a bunch of 'hooey.'”

“By the end of that course I had gone back to confession, and was helping my wife to discern whether she was called to become Catholic – which she eventually did.”

“I came to believe the Church was right about contraception before I believed she was right about anything else, even the existence of God himself,” Scheidler recalled.

He came to this conclusion by comparing his own life experience with the predictions made by Paul VI in “Humanae Vitae.”

“I reflected on my own marriage, and I saw that the very problems Pope Paul VI pointed out about contraception – how it would twist and distort a man's attitude towards his wife … I had to admit that I was guilty of so much of what the Church predicted contraception would do. It just rang true to me.”

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Scheidler hopes to reach the culture with the truth of this teaching – but his first priority with the Nationwide Rally for Religious Freedom is to secure the Church's freedom to practice its beliefs on the institutional level.

“It's not just a few pundits and a few bishops,” he said. “There are people out there who reject the idea that pregnancy and childbirth are diseases that need to be controlled and prevented … There are people who believe this is an encroachment of their religious freedom.”