By Barb Arland-Fye
DAVENPORT — As two police officers stood guard at an entrance to the Federal Courthouse, some 140 children and adults sang and prayed the rosary during a noon-hour rally for religious freedom March 23.
Jeanne Wonio, the Davenport Diocese’s pro-life/respect life coordinator, organized the rally in response to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate concerning health care coverage that the Catholic Church believes violates its religious rights.
Wonio had printed 10 copies of what is called the Patriotic Rosary, which intersperses patriotic songs and intercessions between decades of the rosary. She had not anticipated the size of the crowd that gathered and was delighted to have to run to a copy shop to make more copies. “Prayer is what we’re called to do and that’s what we can do,” Wonio said.
Rosaries dangled from the hands of the participants, some of whom also carried posters inscribed with a variety of slogans, such as: “Catholics Unite Against the Tyranny of the Absolutist State, Not Just Because We Are Catholics, But Because we are Americans. Support our Catholic Bishops.”
The bishops leading Iowa’s four dioceses have called for a day of prayer and fasting on March 30, asking all Catholics to dedicate the regular Lenten Friday practice of prayer and abstinence as well as the practice of fasting to the preservation of religious liberty.
In a statement, they said: “As the Catholic bishops of Iowa, we are strongly united in our ongoing efforts to protect religious freedom. Regrettably, a Health and Human Services mandate announced last year will require many Catholic and other religious institutions to cover medical services that are in opposition to their religious beliefs. The president’s announced accommodation still makes an unacceptable distinction between our houses of worship and our ministries, and still requires all non-exempt employers to facilitate the objectionable coverage.
“The mandate represents government coercion of religious people and groups to violate their most deeply held convictions. We believe this dispute is not about access to contraceptives but about the government’s forcing the Church to provide them. At a minimum, any federal regulation should fully respect religious freedom and freedom of conscience as enshrined in our Constitution and in particular, the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.”
While the Davenport rally was not organized by the bishops, participants stood in full support of the bishops’ concerns and objections.
The rally’s purpose was “to bring to the attention of people of all faiths that they should be concerned about the issue of religious freedom,” said John Muenster, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Davenport who assisted Wonio.
Muenster worries that the federal government’s intransigence on this issue could force Catholic hospitals and other religious entities that serve millions of Americans to discontinue those critically needed services.
“We need to shock people out of their complacency and get them involved – how do we best do that? By constantly keeping the issue in front of people, to let them know that their conscience protections are being violated and their religious freedom is being violated.”
He hopes priests will talk about this issue from the pulpit and inform their congregations that “our religious freedom and our First Amendment rights under the Constitution should be recognized by the current administration and the Department of Health and Human Services.”
Maggie Schoonmaker of the Illinois Quad-Cities brought her five children and two young adults to the prayer rally. “I think it’s good to be an American, so we can stand for our rights,” she said. “The fact that there’s a need for (this action) is heart-breaking.”