FORT WAYNE, Indiana, April 19, 2012 (LifeSiteNews.com) – In a sign of growing solidarity and Christian unity, leaders of the Lutheran Church presented a Roman Catholic bishop with letters from nearly 1,400 Lutherans supporting the Catholic Church’s fight against the HHS mandate.

Leaders of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) presented 112 letters from congregations and church institutions to Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend as part of a “Stand Together for Religious Liberty” event on Tuesday. Some 1,396 Protestants from as far as Iowa signed the letters to the Catholic prelate.

On Tuesday, participants marched the one block from St. Paul’s Lutheran Church to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, where a crowd of 250 people gathered shortly after noon Mass.

Rev. Daniel P. May, Indiana LCMS district president, said the Lutherans undertook the gesture to assure religious freedom remained “unobstructed by government intrusion or coercion, as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States of America.”

The Rev. Dr. Charles Gieschen, professor of exegetical theology at Concordia Theological Seminary-Fort Wayne – of the denomination’s two seminaries – told LifeSiteNews.com he spoke at the event, then took part in delivering “letters of encouragement and support in light of the challenges the compromising of religious freedom has brought the Roman Catholic community.”

“It was organized primarily by a Lutheran layman who just saw this as an opportunity for Lutheran Christians to support other Christians,” Dr. Gieschen said. “In terms of sacred things we gather together with people of our communion, but on things like moral issues, such as the sanctity of human life, we seek to stand together with those who are lending their voices to address these issues in our wider society.” 

Bishop Rhoades “just thought it was a beautiful ecumenical outreach,” Tim Johnson, editor of the local diocesan newspaper, Today’s Catholic News, told LifeSiteNews.com. “I walked back with him to the cathedral, and you could tell he was so pleased at how it came out.”

Rev. Peter Cage, senior pastor at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, told a local television station, “We want to make it clear that this mandate is a concern not only for Catholics. It is an attack on freedom of religion. This controversy is not about contraception, or women’s rights, or anything other than freedom of religion.”

The bishop, who is a consultant to the Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, spoke last, calling the contraceptive and abortifacient mandate “an unprecedented coercive action by the federal government to force religious institutions and individuals to facilitate and to fund products that are contrary to our moral teaching.”

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“Religious liberty is more than freedom of worship,” he said. “It includes the freedom to practice our faith in society without coercion from the government to violate our consciences. We stand together as Lutherans and Catholics today in opposing the attack on our religious liberty by the federal government.”

He told the mixed Protestants and Catholics at the event, “You give me hope that, with the help of God’s grace, we will see a new birth of freedom in our beloved country.”

“My heart is filled with gratitude to you, my brothers and sisters of Lutheran congregations of the Missouri Synod here in Fort Wayne,” the bishop said.

The outpouring of unity was the latest joint action the two historically estranged churches have taken together against the Obama administration’s encroachments on the freedom of religion.

The denomination’s president, Dr. Matthew Harrison, testified alongside a Catholic bishop at an often hostile hearing on religious freedom before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in February. He estimated the mandate could cost his denomination tens of millions in fines if it refuses to comply and expressed his willingness to go to jail over his beliefs.

In February, the Fort Wayne seminary faculty posted a statement on the HHS mandate that said, “While we do not share with the Catholic Church the same teaching on contraceptives, we do honor their right, according to the First Amendment, to practice their beliefs according to their conscience. Furthermore, we do stand with them entirely on the matter of abortifacients, which we hold to be the taking of human life.”

“Furthermore, this mandate from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is by no means an isolated incident,” the statement held, “but is part of a troubling trend in which governmental entities are demanding that religious institutions abandon their own biblical principles or else discontinue their works of charity.”

The Obama administration intervened in Hosanna v. Tabor, a Supreme Court case attempting to eliminate the ministerial exemption. The Christian school being sued is affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

Catholic adoption agencies have closed rather than violate their consciences. Chicago’s Francis Cardinal George has warned all Catholic hospitals will close in two years if the HHS mandate is not rescinded.

“Do we want to live in a world where social activities informed by religious conscience are systematically exterminated?” the seminary statement asked. “Do we want to live in a world where the social fabric is torn apart, and an overreaching government harasses the very people who knit together our society through acts of charity and mercy? Do we want the public landscape wiped clean of religious hospitals, schools and charitable organizations?”

Dr. Gieschen told LifeSiteNews, as theologically distinct as Lutherans and Catholics remain, they will always fight shoulder-to-shoulder to maintain religious liberty and to preserve the sanctity of human life.