Hundreds of people gathered March 23 in front of U.S. courthouses, state capitols and historic sites to support religious freedom and protest a federal mandate they say violates that freedom by requiring most religious employers to provide no-cost contraceptive coverage even it is contrary to their beliefs.All of the events, held at noon local time in 143 cities, were part of a nationwide "Stand Up for Religious Freedom" rally organized by the Pro-Life Action League in Chicago and Citizens for a Pro-Life Society, based in Michigan. About 55,000 people participated.

In Washington, a rally was held in front of the Washington headquarters of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Rev. Patrick Mahoney, a minister in the Reformed Presbyterian Church who is director of the Christian Defense Coalition, opened it with a prayer.

"We are here not with clenched fists but in humility before God," he said, urging the crowd of about 2,000 to kneel on the paved area in front of the HHS building. "We are here because the faith community cannot be silent when it comes to human rights and we will never comply with an unjust order that violates our faith."

In Philadelphia, the rally took place outside of Independence Hall, the birthplace of American liberty. A large percentage of the 2,300 participants were women, which seemed to contradict the prevailing view that a majority of U.S. women support the contraceptive mandate.

Michelle Griffin, a registered nurse at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and a member of Holy Cross Parish in Mount Airy, Pa., was passing out literature at the rally, sponsored the Respect Life Office of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in conjunction with organizations connected with the pro-life movement.

"It is important to me as a health care provider to have those conscience clauses that will protect me as an individual in accordance with my conscience and not having to go against my conscience," she told The Catholic Standard & Times, Philadelphia's archdiocesan newspaper.

Kathryn Slaats, who came with a busload of people from St. Patrick Parish in Malvern, Pa., spoke for her group, saying: "We want to tell the government not to tread on our religious freedoms. We must organize, contribute and fight for the right to worship God the way we choose to do so."

Across the country in San Francisco, Bishop Salvatore Cordileone of Oakland led the lineup of speakers who addressed close to 500 people outside the federal courthouse; the final crowd tally was 1,200.

"Yes, get the government out of our church," the bishop said to loud cheers. "How dare the government tell us our religion requires we only serve people of our faith."

"This time it's Catholics, but it won't stop there," he added.

Two Catholic obstetricians/gynecologists from Omaha, Neb., who were visiting San Francisco to learn techniques of microsurgery to repair fallopian tubes to restore fertility, attended the rally. "We know there is better health care available that doesn't involve abortion and contraception because we practice it daily," Dr. Christine Cimo-Hemphill told Catholic San Francisco, the archdiocesan newspaper.

"The fact that we have to be here today --- in this day and age--- fighting for our rights is unbelievable," said George Wesolek, director of the San Francisco archdiocesan Office of Public Policy and Social Concerns and a rally speaker. "We are not going to be confined to the walls of our church. Our faith tells us to go out and serve others, no matter what."

In Portland, Ore., Jim Stair, 68, a member of Clackamas Bible Church, was among 300 people who rallied in front of the federal courthouse.

"The president needs to re-read the Constitution," he told the Catholic Sentinel, Portland's archdiocesan newspaper. "The First Amendment provides freedom of religion. Anything the government does to violate that is unconstitutional."

"We do not want the hands of the government on our bodies, our consciences or our souls," retired Auxiliary Bishop Kenneth Steiner told cheering protesters. "Our religious liberty is about being able to practice our beliefs in daily life. We are love-based organizations."

Women demonstrators in unison read an open letter to President Barack Obama, saying he should not presume to speak for all women. Some wept as they read, saying they are proud to stand up for "the most vulnerable."

More than 300 hundred people crowded the plaza near the Sandra Day O'Connor federal court building in downtown Phoenix. the HHS mandate was an assault on religious freedom and a violation of both the U.S. Constitution and international law.

"Religious freedom is not just a Catholic value or a Muslim, Jewish or evangelical value, it's a deeply American value," Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted told the crowd.

He lauded a bill recently introduced in the Arizona Legislature by Republican Rep. Debbie Lesko that would expand the exemption under Arizona law so that any employer or insurer with religious objections is not forced by the government to provide abortifacients or contraceptives in their health plans.

Hundreds of people gathered outside federal courthouses in Charlotte, Marion and Winston-Salem, N.C. In Charlotte, Bishop Peter Jugis gave the opening prayer.

William Thierfelder, president of Belmont Abbey College, spoke about the lawsuit filed by his school against the federal government, one of several filed in an effort to block the HHS mandate before it takes effect in 2013. He described the battle as one akin to that of Daniel in the lion's den, and said all people of faith must speak up to defend religious freedom.

Jeanne Wray of Rome at the Inn, a ministry that helps all pregnant women in need regardless of their faith, called the mandate "a very dangerous precedent."

"This is about religious intolerance," she said. "And make no mistake, if we don't stand up now, Catholic hospitals, schools and colleges could become a thing of the past, and we will be fighting religious persecution."

"I love my country and I am proud to be an American," she said tearfully, "but I am being forced to choose between my faith and my country."

Tina Pallini, one of the organizers of the rally in the rotunda of the Brown County Courthouse in Green Bay, told The Compass, Green Bay's diocesan newspaper: "Citizens are standing in prayer and public witness to affirm our religious freedom and to oppose the governmental mandate, an unprecedented and direct attack on our constitutional rights and our religious freedom."

The former diocesan respect life coordinator added: "We are here to stand up, to speak out, to pray and to say 'no thank you' to the mandate that infringes on our constitutional rights which our country was founded on."

Lynn Watts, 48, was one of about 200 people gathered in Baltimore's in front of the George H. Fallon Federal Building.

"The mandate that Obama put out overstepped his boundaries and infringed on our religious freedoms, said Watts, a parishioner of Our Lady of the Fields in Millersville. "We need to stand up and let him know that we don't all agree with it."

Rally speakers included representatives from different Christian denominations and organizations, pro-life organizations, the Jewish community, and lawmakers. Jesuit Father Edward Ifkovits, associate pastor of St. Ignatius in Baltimore, gave the closing prayer.

In the Archdiocese of Baltimore, rallies were also organized in Bel Air and Ellicott City. Auxiliary Bishop Mitchell Rozanski attended the Ellicott City rally, and Auxiliary Bishop Denis Madden gave the invocation at the Baltimore rally.

U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican who is Catholic, told The Catholic Review, Baltimore's archdiocesan newspaper, that holding rallies in 143 locations sends "a clear message to Washington that you can't trample on religious freedom."

Contributing to this story were Carol Zimmermann in Washington, Lou Baldwin in Philadelphia, Valerie Schmalz in Oakland, Ed Langlois in Portland, Joyce Coronel in Phoenix, Patricia L. Guilfoyle in Charlotte, Sam Lucero in Green Bay and Maria Wiering in Baltimore.

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