Christine Dhanagom contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON, March 23, 2012 (LifeSiteNews.com) - Another “Occupy” movement has just rocked the United States of America - but with a very different message.
Tens of thousands of men and women gathered in 146 protests on Friday, joining a grassroots effort that organizers say grew far beyond expectations. The rallies were held to protest the Obama administration mandate forcing religious universities, charities, and other groups to pay for abortifacient drugs and other birth control for students and employees.
But while the purpose of the Occupy protests last Fall was sometimes criticized as being somewhat hazy, the message of this event was clear. According to the Friday rallies, the HHS mandate is not a birth control issue, but a religious freedom issue, and a challenge to fight that won’t be ignored.
One fulcrum of the national protests was Washington, D.C., where about 1,500-2,000 gathered on a hot and sunny afternoon before the Health and Human Services building. Beneath the windows of HHS offices was heard the chanting of “We will not comply,” car horns honking in solidarity, and the rallying cries of several prominent speakers, including Pat Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition, Kristan Hawkins of Students for Life, conservative activist Star Parker, and Lila Rose of Live Action.
Hawkins put the issue in blunt terms, stating simply, “This is tyranny.”
“We are being told that our beliefs, our conscience, no longer matters,” said the pro-life youth leader. “What stops them from targeting someone else next?”
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In a speech that elicited a strong reaction from the crowd, Star Parker said that, “No more should my auto insurance cover your tune-up should my health insurance cover your sex life. Not your Viagra, not your condoms, not your birth control devices, not your abortions.”
Lila Rose highlighted the interests of abortion and contraception giant Planned Parenthood, the leading lobbyist in favor of the mandate, and criticized the progressive talking point that standing against the mandate was a “war on women.” “The very group that’s manipulating, victimizing women - you talk about a war on women, that’s the war on women,” said Rose, whose investigations have famously unveiled Planned Parenthood’s abetting of sex traffickers and child rapists.
Rallies in 145 other locations showed evidence of similar zeal across the United States.
Over 1,000 gathered under the shadow of George Washington’s statue on the steps of Federal Hall in New York, while hundreds more gathered from Ft. Lauderdale, Fl., to Winston-Salem, NC, to Ann Arbor, Mich., to a rainy Cincinnati, Oh.
Eric Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League, one of the lead organizers of the event, estimated that there were around 1,500 people present in Chicago, despite the pouring rain. While the rain killed the rally’s public announcement system, Scheidler said, “We soldier on.”
2,200 were reported in St. Paul, Minnesota, where HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was visiting Friday.
A rally in the small town of Front Royal, Virginia - where the Occupy movement protest last year consisted of two - drew 200.
Local media reported 400 attendees in Livingston, “hundreds” in Grand Rapids, 500 in Allentown, 150 in Rochester, “hundreds” in Omaha, “hundreds” in Ann Arbor, “hundreds” in Toledo, “over 600” in Buffalo, “hundreds” in Goshen, and “hundreds” in Evansville.
The protest even appears to have gone international: a Youtube video posted on Facebook rally pages shows a demonstration of solidarity in Pakistan.
During a rally of about 100 in Germantown, Md., a noticeable number of drivers honked and waved in support - and participants lamented the fate of healthcare under the anti-Catholic effects of the mandate.
“If this HHS mandate goes through, the backbone of so much of the healthcare in the United States Is going to collapse because it’s Catholic,” Fr. Francis Martin, chaplain of the local Catholic lay group Mother of God Community, told LifeSiteNews.com.
Another Catholic priest, Fr. Marcel Guarnizo of the Archdiocese of Washington said at the D.C. rally that the mandate is not only “worse than Roe v. Wade” because it will directly coerce people of faith, but that this coercion is part and parcel of the administration’s ultimate goal.
“The one thing this anti-freedom of religion mandate is not about, is contraception,” said the priest, who noted that the country is already “flooded” with birth control.
“If you attempt to nationalize 1/6 of our economy - the health care sector - you need to get rid of intermediate structures in society, the churches and other institutions stand as a buffer zone between the state and the citizen,” he said.
“Some people don’t like that.”
Carolina Agostino, a Virginia schoolteacher attending the D.C. rally, agreed that the mandate would mark a seismic shift for America.
“I cannot believe that this is happening in our country, the United States of America,” said Agostino, who emigrated to America from Uruguay as a teenager. “You can expect it from other countries maybe, but not the United States.”
Despite the spirit of opposition, the crowds were joyful and peaceful: the only police interference at the D.C. rally was to ask children not to climb the concrete pylons.
Some speakers even saw the administration’s “war on the Church,” for all the danger, in a positive light, and called to attention the long-overdue nature of the debate over how religious freedom and sexual morality intersect.
“The Church has been called out ot defend its position as a moral authority in this great country,” said Star Parker. “The bright side of this government overreach [is that it] gives us reason to have a conversation that we should have had way back in the 60s.”
Pat Mahoney, leader of the Christian Defense Coalition and emcee of the D.C. event assured his audience that the movement against the mandate would not end in tandem with the last of Friday’s rallies.
“This is just a starting line,” he said.