Stand Up for Religious Freedom!

Chicago rally

Energetic Stand Up Rally in Chicago’s Federal Plaza, June 8 [Photo by Sam Scheidler]

When President Obama first introduced his plans for overhauling the nation’s health care system at a June 2009 American Medical Association meeting in Chicago, the Pro-Life Action League was there. In fact, the League was the first pro-life organization to protest what would become known as Obamacare, and our message was simple: “Abortion is not health care.”

Three years later, the League is leading the grassroots opposition to one of the most pernicious provisions of the entire 2,700-page Obamacare law: the so-called “HHS Mandate,” an unprecedented attack on both the sanctity of life and religious freedom.

The Anti-Life, Un-American HHS Mandate

Under Obamacare, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is empowered to mandate certain preventive services to be covered free of charge by all health plans, to promote health and cut costs. In August 2011, the HHS announced that contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs were being classified as “preventive services” for women and must be offered free of charge in employer health plans.

In effect, the Obama administration was defining fertility to be a kind of medical condition and pregnancy and childbirth to be some sort of disease requiring mandated preventive care!

The League immediately spoke out against the HHS Mandate as an attack on the family, and—recognizing that the Obama administration was dead set on imposing the mandate—joined our voice to the growing chorus calling for an exemption for religious employers.

But then on January 20, 2012—just two days before the anniversary of Roe v. Wade—the Obama administration added insult to injury by providing a “religious exemption” so narrow that only small houses of worship would qualify for it. Such institutions as Catholic universities and hospitals, along with businesses owned by devout Christians, Jews and Muslims, would be compelled to provide free contraceptives, sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs in their health plans, regardless of their religious or moral objections.

Not only was the HHS Mandate anti-child and anti-mother, it was anti-American. Both by compelling religious employers to violate their consciences, and assuming upon itself the authority to define what constitutes religious ministry, the federal government was directly attacking the FirstAmendment.

The outcry against the HHS Mandate grew to fever pitch, with even liberal Catholics like columnist E. J. Dionne joining the growing number of Catholic bishops calling for the policy to be reversed and vowing not to comply with it. Editorial boards across the country were calling the policy a mistake.

Pro-Life Activists See the Danger

When I learned that the HHS Mandate would be imposed on religious employers, I knew instinctively that public opposition was called for, and on a scale that would match the gravity of President Obama’s attack on religious freedom and the sanctity of life. I wasn’t the only one thinking this way.

A few days after Obama’s bogus “religious exemption” was unveiled, I received an email from Tom Uebbing, a pro-life activist in South Bend, Indiana, who had joined the League’s protest of President Obama’s commencement address at the University of Notre Dame in 2009. Writing to both me and Monica Miller, head of Citizens for a Pro-Life Society, Tom suggested we hold a public demonstration outside the federal courthouse in South Bend to protest the HHS Mandate.

Monica and I had collaborated on the protest of Obama at Notre Dame, so Tom thought we could work together again. Thanks to Tom’s email, Monica and I discovered that we were both thinking about publicly protesting the HHS Mandate, but on a far more dramatic scale.

As pro-life activists, we hold our First Amendment rights dear. Day in and day out, prolife activists exercise our freedoms of speech, assembly and religion when we offer help to abortion-bound mothers outside clinics and when we expose the reality of abortion in the public square.

Monica and I could see how high the stakes were. We soon concluded that God was calling on us to respond to the HHS Mandate with a protest of historic proportions. We would hold simultaneous “rallies for religious freedom” in cities and towns across the United States.

League Calls for Nationwide Protest

Monica and I dubbed our nationwide protest the “Stand Up for Religious Freedom” rally, and chose a date of March 23, the last business day before the Feast of the Annunciation. Rallying on a weekday would garner maximum media attention, and the proximity to the feast would contrast the Virgin Mary’s YES to motherhood with the NO manifest in the HHS Mandate.

We later learned that this date marked the 237th anniversary of Patrick Henry’s famous “Give me liberty or give me death!” speech, as well as the second anniversary of the day Obamacare was signed into law by the president. Providence seemed to be at work!

Monica and I scheduled a conference call for February 13, inviting every pro-life leader we could think of at the national, state and local level to join us in planning this major protest. Meanwhile, my assistant Matt Yonke and I got to work creating a new website at StandUpForReligiousFreedom.com.

Three days before our conference call, President Obama announced that he had reached an “accommodation” of religious leaders’ concerns over the HHS Mandate. At a brief White House press conference, with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius by his side, Obama announced that it wouldn’t be religious employers who pay for the free contraceptives, but the insurance companies.

I immediately issued a statement denouncing this so-called “accommodation” as nothing but a “shell game”—a comparison that was given a huge audience by Sean Hannity when he quoted my statement on his radio program that afternoon.

Accounting gimmicks aside, the federal government would still be forcing employers to provide health plans with free contraceptives, sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs.

Unfortunately, Obama’s “shell game” largely worked. Most of the prominent liberal Catholics who had denounced the HHS Mandate declared themselves satisfied with the “accommodation,” and the mainstream media falsely reported that President Obama had solved the problem—a story they’ve stuck with to this day, despite the bishops’ rejection of the bogus “accommodation.”

It was clear to Monica and me that President Obama was only aiming to divide the growing ranks of Catholics of all political persuasions lining up to oppose the HHS Mandate. The president’s cynical move redoubled our determination to mount a protest of historic proportions.

Cities Sign on for the Rally

Our conference call with pro-life leaders was well attended, and Monica and I laid out our plan for a nationwide protest of the HHS Mandate at federal buildings, courthouses, Congressional offices and historic sites from coast to coast. Each rally would take place at noon local time—a wave of protest sweeping across all six U. S. time zones.

Activists all over the country were eager to be a part of this historic protest, and by the end of the call we had recruited 30 leaders to host Stand Up for Religious Freedom rallies in their cities—well on the way to our goal of 50 cities.

In addition to the great zeal to fight the HHS Mandate, one of the key reasons so many cities joined up so rapidly was that the Pro-Life Action League promised to provide a bundle of professionally printed protest signs for each rally location, as well as thorough training and materials for all the “Rally Captains” on everything from working with the media to enlisting guest speakers.

Our rally map quickly grew beyond the first 30 cities enlisted on the conference call, as we spread the word about the Rally through email, Facebook, press releases, interviews on friendly radio and prolife blogs like JillStanek.com. A great boost came when I was invited to share word of the Stand Up Rally on a Priests for Life conference call on the HHS Mandate. Soon we hit 60 cities, with more signing on every day.

Training the Rally Captains

Chicago rally

Stand Up Rally in St. Paul, Minnesota, March 23 [Photo by courtesty of Pro-Life Action Ministries]

While some of our Rally Captains were experienced veterans—like Brian Gibson of Pro-Life Action Ministries in the Twin Cities—many of them were first-time leaders. My office worked diligently to provide all the tools they would need to host great events in their hometowns. Leadership training has been one of the great successes of this endeavor.

Through several conference calls, regular email updates, exhaustive leadership resources on the Rally website and countless individual phone calls, we equipped the Rally Captains for success. Along the way, we earned their respect and gratitude, knitting together a strong, united network of grassroots leaders that will have an impact for years to come.

Rally Captains in some cities—Dallas, Tacoma and Scranton, to name a few—hit problems with the local authorities as they sought permits for their rallies. We turned to our friends at the Thomas More Society Pro-Life Law Center of Chicago—counsel in my libel suit with Planned Parenthood (see story, page 1)—who quickly resolved every legal issue.

Meanwhile, Monica and I began giving interviews about the Stand Up Rally to friendly media like Ave Maria Radio, Relevant Radio and the Christian Post. Not only did this help to draw participants and recruit more Rally Captains, but it gave us the opportunity to reach hundreds of thousand with the truth about the HHS Mandate.

Rally Fever Sweeps the Country

By the final week before the Rally, the number of cities on the map had topped 120, and requests from prospective Rally Captains continued to pour in. Daily visits to the Stand Up Rally website climbed towards 50,000, and the League offices were pounded with calls and emails from people eager to take part in the event.

The Stand Up for Religious Freedom Coalition began to grow too, as local and national organizations signed on as sponsors, including special partners like the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the Alliance Defense Fund and the Manhattan Declaration.

The mainstream media finally woke up, too. In addition to daily interviews with friendly pro-life and Christian media, I talked to reporters from the Washington Post, Associated Press and National Public Radio, appeared on Fox News Channel, and gave a short interview to Laura Ingraham on her nationally syndicated radio program. I began to speculate to reporters that attendance on March 23 might top 10,000.

Chicago: Rally “Ground Zero”

Early on the morning of March 23, I was picked up by a car service and driven to the Fox News Channel studios overlooking the Chicago River for a live interview with Bill Hemmer that was rebroadcast throughout the day as Fox News covered the rallies, reaching millions of viewers.

After my interview, I walked the few blocks south to Federal Plaza, where people were already beginning to gather under dark storm clouds. As my crew and I set up the stage, it began to rain. But the weather appeared to have no impact on attendance, as the plaza continued to fill up.

A full hour before our noon start time, we had already topped 500 people, and I began to share with the crowd all the numbers coming in by text message from the Eastern time zone: 300 in Norfolk, 500 in Miami, 700 in Indianapolis, 1,000 in Detroit.

Our final count in Chicago was a whopping 2,500, the largest rally in the country. The huge crowd was filled with enthusiasm, despite driving rain that shorted out our sound system just as the rally program began. When authorities at Federal Plaza refused to turn the power back on, stalwart volunteer Vince Jans borrowed an extra power cord from some construction workers and convinced a security guard at the adjacent Post Office to let him plug in there. The crowd went wild when the power came back on!

My mother, Ann Scheidler, served as emcee, with a diverse panel of men and women leaders from a variety of faith traditions and both political parties. They spoke out against the HHS Mandate from every angle: law, politics, religion, health, race, economics and what’s really best for American women.

Massive Coverage Earned across All Media

From coast to coast and as far away as Honolulu, Stand Up Rally attendees heard similar talks from religious, political and community leaders, including talks by 25 bishops and official greetings sent by another eleven. In Scranton, a “pagan high priest” gave one of the most eloquent and wellreceived speeches in defense of religious freedom.

As the Chicago Rally wrapped up, the tally from across the country had already topped 17,000, with most sites yet to submit their numbers.

Reports continued to flood in from the Rally Captains, and hundreds of news stories appeared across all media: radio, television, print and online.

Prominently featured in these news stories were 4,400 signs the Pro-Life Action League had shipped out to the rally sites reading STOP OBAMA’S HHS MANDATE and STAND UP FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM. Even when reporters botched the story—for example, calling this an “anti-contraception” rally—these signs got our message out.

The theme of religious freedom echoed through the media from coast to coast, confronting the propaganda coming from the White House and Planned Parenthood that was construing opposition to the HHS Mandate as a “war on women” or “war on contraception.”

In all, over 60,000 people attended Stand Up for Religious Freedom rallies in 145 cities and towns—a result far beyond the most optimistic dreams Monica and I had nursed over our weeks of preparation.

Calls for a Second Rally

Even before the March 23 Stand Up Rally took place, people were beginning to ask, “When is the next rally?” and calls for another one only increased after the success of the first one. After taking some time to evaluate the results of the March 23 event and celebrate Easter with our families, Monica and I announced a second rally for Friday, June 8.

We chose this date in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the constitutionality of Obamacare, expected at the end of June. However the court would rule, our nation’s debate over health care was clearly not yet over; for the next round of health care reform, we would demand religious freedom be fully respected. June 8 was also the 223rd anniversary of the day James Madison introduced the Bill of Rights to the First Congress.

We broke news of the second Rally to our Captains on an April 12 conference call, inviting them to “re-up” as local leaders. Scores of them signed back on over the next two weeks, and then we opened the door to anyone else wishing to host a local rally. Several appearances by Monica on Ave Maria Radio and a conference call with 40 Days for Life leaders hosted by David Bereit helped us recruit more leaders, and we were soon on track to top our city numbers from March.

But Monica and I knew a successful second rally would take a tremendous effort, far beyond what was involved with the first one. Fortunately, we had an outstanding training program already in place for our Rally Captains, and a great national network to build upon. On top of that, the League placed ads in Catholic newspapers, pro-life websites and Christian radio stations.

Cardinals Praise the Rally Effort

Chicago rally

Stand Up Rally in Boston, Massachusetts, March 23 [Photo courtesty of the Boston Catholic Insider]

The success of the March 23 Stand Up Rally opened up many doors for the Pro-Life Action League—including the exciting opportunity for me to personally share news of the June 8 rally with a group of Roman Catholic Cardinals.

This came about thanks to a couple I met after the March 23 rally in Chicago, Chris and Mary Anne Yep. They invited me to speak at the inaugural meeting of a religious freedom education program they were launching at their parish—one of dozens of such projects to spring from the Stand Up Rally. They also invited my wife April and me to be their guests at the American Cardinals Dinner, an annual benefit for the Catholic University of America, held this year in Chicago.

It was my honor to share news of the June 8 rally with Cardinals George, Weurl, DiNardo, O’Malley, Mahony and Dolan, all of whom praised this lay effort to defend religious freedom. I also assured the Cardinals that I would encourage involvement in their Fortnight for Freedom, unveiled the same day Monica and I formally announced the second rally.

Moving Beyond Religious Freedom

As I continued to lead the grassroots fight against the HHS Mandate, I began to realize that there was more at stake here than just religious freedom. President Obama hadn’t just failed to respect the conscience rights of religious employers—he had failed to grant them their rightful place at the table when overhauling our nation’s health care system.

Instead of reaching out to the faith-based institutions that have been caring for society’s most vulnerable members for centuries, he reached out instead to Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider—an organization that thinks basic health care consists of nothing more than free birth control and state-funded abortion.

This became a key theme of the June 8 Stand Up Rally. I encouraged Rally Captains to invite speakers from the health care field to explain how faith helps them better serve their patients, as well as women from Silent No More Awareness to share their stories of how Planned Parenthood’s narrow vision of “women’s health” does so much harm.

League Ships 30,000 Signs

During the week of May 21, my office shipped out 30,000 protest signs to Rally Captains from Maine to Hawaii—seven times the number sent out for the March rally. We also supplied the Captains with large “Stand Up for Religious Freedom” banners and hundreds of “Stop the HHS Mandate” buttons to pass out to their crowds.

My staff and I updated materials like the HHS Mandate Fact Sheet to be passed out at the rallies, and the sheet of Talking Points provided to Rally Captains to help them give good interviews to the local press. And here in Chicago, we put together plans for the best Stand Up Rally yet—including a larger stage and an exciting collaboration with the pro-life youth group, Crusaders for Life.

Meanwhile, training continued with our Rally Captains through conference calls and emails, including special topics like working with the local dioceses and churches and how to raise funds to cover local rally costs. Media consultant Tom Ciesielka of TC Public Relations—a special League partner these past five years—gave a crash course in media relations and helped the Rally Captains secure great advance publicity.

Pro-Life Flash Mob Swings into Action

June 8 dawned for me almost like a repeat of March 23, with a car service pulling up to my door to take me to another live interview at Fox News Channel—except that this time, there was no rain in the forecast. But unfortunately, my interview was canceled thanks to President Obama, who called a last-minute press conference on job creation.

I had to wonder if the White House wasn’t deliberately trying to drown out news coverage of the upcoming rally.

However, I quickly overcame my disappointment when I arrived at Federal Plaza and saw our huge stage going up, and a crowd gathering that seemed sure to top our numbers from March. In fact, attendance increased dramatically in Chicago, topping 3,600!

Once again, Chicago’s proved to be the flagship of all the 163 rallies taking place across the United States. We hired a Dixieland band to play as people were arriving, and the atmosphere was festive, despite the urgency of this battle. Our emcee this time was Mary FioRito, special assistant to Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, and the program included a recorded message from the Cardinal.

The highlight of the rally came during remarks from pro-life blogger Jill Stanek, who is both a great speaker and a good sport. As Jill was speaking, the band interrupted her with some opening notes, and then a crowd of pro-life teens came rushing around the corner with huge clusters of yellow balloons—a pro-life flash mob!

The band struck up a tune and the kids began swing dancing—all part of the plan we had orchestrated with the Crusaders for Life, with Jill’s cooperation, to put an energetic, youthful face on this movement and debunk the myth that it’s only old men with miters who oppose the HHS Mandate.

The crowd was jubilant over this creative effort to “swing” public opinion.

Another Triumphant Rally

Chicago rally

Monica Miller’s Stand Up Rally in Detroit, Michigan, June 8 [Photo courtesty of Citizens for a Pro-Life Society]

Similar successes were taking place across the country. Detroit, for example, doubled both their attendance and their media coverage, and many other cities topped their March numbers. Though attendance was down in some places, the Rally Captains were overwhelmingly pleased with what they had accomplished. The second rally again topped 60,000 participants nationwide.

Media coverage was once again outstanding. Though the three major broadcast television networks ignored the event completely, it was covered by Fox News Channel, the Associated Press, and hundreds of local news outlets. In fact, the lack of network coverage was picked up by several conservative commentators, including Rush Limbaugh, further increasing our exposure to the public.

In all, the two Stand Up for Religious Freedom rallies drew over 120,000 people to 308 rallies in 200 cities across the United States, and reached tens of millions more Americans either directly or through the hundreds of news stories garnered by the two events. The rallies made history as the largest multi-city, simultaneous pro-life demonstrations of all time. And our more than 200 Rally Captains are eagerly awaiting their next marching orders in this epic struggle for religious freedom.

Fight for Religious Freedom Continues

On June 28, the Supreme Court upheld Obamacare in a ruling on issues unrelated to the HHS Mandate. While many of us had hoped they would overturn the entire law—which would have ended the HHS Mandate, too—I’m convinced this ruling will only increase the urgency of the League’s protests and inspire more people of faith to join us on the streets.

The outstanding nationwide activist network built up through the two Stand Up for Religious Freedom rallies is ready to be deployed again. The fight to stop the HHS Mandate will go forward boldly—in the courts, in Congress, on the streets and on election day!

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