What a religious freedom rally looks like

We’ve been talking quite a bit about how the public outcry over religious freedom issues has been portrayed in the press. When the Obama administration created a new requirement that religious employers fully fund abortion drugs, contraception and sterilization, many religious employers and their supporters cried foul. The people who support the mandate argue that free contraception is a fundamental right that the government must force employers to provide. Further, failing to force employers to provide these things constitutes a war on women.

And that side of things has been pretty well covered — even adopted, at times — by the media. That side of things should be covered well, although some media outlets have gone overboard by openly campaigning for that side. (Here, for example.)

The other side — those who say that their previously enjoyed religious or economic liberty is more fundamental than free birth control — have not had their side of the story covered well. So mostly when we talk about how the religious freedom side of the argument has been portrayed, we’re talking about a failure to even mention that side of the argument, much less treat it with seriousness (see, for example, the scare quote trend some jumped on).

We’ve been drowning in examples of poor coverage of the outcry against the mandate so I wanted to highlight a story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that handled it well.

Most of the religious freedom rallies that were held across the country were held last Friday at noon. (We looked at previous coverage here.) But some were held on the weekend and the one in Jefferson City, Missouri, took place yesterday. There was also another rally outside the Capitol, for a different grievance. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch covered both rallies, substantively, and put the story in the front section of the paper. There was even a picture of the large religious freedom rally on the front page of the paper with the headline “Crammed Into The Capitol.” So the paper did not bury the news that some Missourians are displeased about this mandate.

As for the story, it’s done by a great Godbeat professional, Tim Townsend. He gives a flavor of the variety of people in the crowd and quotes from different factions:

Speaking to fellow Christians in the rotunda of the Missouri Capitol on Tuesday, St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson delivered a warning to the White House.

“The fight against a federal requirement that most health plans provide free contraceptive benefits to their members “is not about contraception,” he said. “It’s about religious liberty, and we will never give up this freedom.”

Thousands of people, many wearing red T-shirts with messages such as “I will not comply” and “I stand with the Catholic Church,” roared in approval.

Catholics, Southern Baptists, Missouri-Synod Lutherans and members of the Assemblies of God packed three floors of the rotunda at the “Rally for Religious Liberty” to protest the January announcement by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Arguments over liberty and governmental authority being made concurrently in the U.S. Supreme Court were mentioned by speakers and those in the crowd. The rally also came on the same day that the Missouri Senate gave initial approval to a bill that allows employers to opt out of the contraception mandate.

I might have been nervous about characterizing the entire crowd as Christian — how does one know? — but I just really appreciate the tightly written lede that gives the basics without telling you what to think about what the people said.

We then get a chunk devoted to the other rally — where union members wore bright orange and green shirts in protest of “right-to-work” legislation and other worker laws. We learn that the crowds were the largest of the past decade, although no official estimate is made.

Then we get back to the religious freedom rally:

The federal birth control mandate — which would require religiously affiliated institutions, such as universities and hospitals, to include free coverage in their employee health coverage — has been called an attack on religious freedom by many Christians.

Speaking under the words of Rudyard Kipling carved into the rotunda, “Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet — lest we forget,” Missouri Baptist Convention executive director John Yeats called the Obama administration a “secularist government” that had “declared war on religion and freedom of conscience.”

To huge applause, he called Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius “Obama’s health care high priestess,” and compared the administration to the British monarchy during the time of the American Revolution.

There are more colorful quotes from the Yeats fellow before we get a discussion of how the protests have taken place across the country and why. There are additional details on the mandate, promised revisions to the mandate and why that promised revision doesn’t pass muster with the people fighting the mandate. And then we get a discussion of how proponents of the mandate are framing the battle as a war on women. Which segues into an appearance by the woman who heads my church body’s life and health ministries:

Maggie Karner, director of life and health ministries for the St. Louis-based Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, was the only woman on the podium, and one of the four major speakers. Karner said, to a standing ovation, that the issue at hand was “not about women’s issues at all.””

“It concerns all of us American citizens and our constitutional rights,” she said.

There are also quotes from average participants, as well as a member of the legislature who opposes the rally attendees and what they stand for. People are given room to speak freely using their own words and terms. It’s just a very straightforward story that explains the arguments of the protesters.

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  • Dana

    It seems to me that the fundamental problem in these discussions is a failure to discuss the role of federal funding in the operations of “religious” institutions. I put “religious” in scare quotes for the obvious reason: most Americans would likely be horrified if a self-funding religious school or hospital was forced by governmental fiat to provide insurance coverage of things antithetical to its stated doctrine.
    But many of the objecting institutions take federal funds. And they provide public services. It seems less an issue of religious liberty than of hospitals sticking an “St.” in front of their name and taking public funding as though it was an entitlement, only sticking to doctrine when it suits them. That’s not right.

    Here is a good position paper on the subject: http://secular.org/issues/faith_based/position

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    For what it’s worth, this HHS mandate has nothing to do with federal funding. Even if you don’t take a drop of taxpayer funds, you have to fund the abortion drugs, sterilization and contraception services it requires.

  • Dana

    Mollie, are you sure about that? I don’t think that’s correct. Can you point to the provision in the law that arches the HHS mandate over private and privately funded institutions?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    I am sure about that, although cutting and pasting the thousands of pages of text necessary to demonstrate that is not feasible or relevant to the purpose of this site.

    Briefly, however, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act gives authority to HHS to develop a list of “preventive services” (and “preventive services for women”) to be covered in all private health plans without any cost sharing.

    HHS wrote a very narrow exemption to that portion of the law that includes only those religious groups that, among a few other things, do not provide charity to non-adherents. Which means that Catholic and Lutheran and other institutions are immediately out — since as a point of doctrine they are required to show love to their non-believing neighbors.

    That’s what the whole business of this mandate is. Every single private health plan has to comply with this — whether or not federal funding is, has or will be an issue.

    It includes the self-insured, too.

    This is a mandate about how the federal government can tell all employers what to do (including religious employers) due to the authority of Obamacare, not due to any authority over federal funding.

    One of the lawsuits that’s been filed against the mandate, incidentally, is from just some dude who employs people and doesn’t want to violate his conscience by being forced to provide things he opposes. He’s not even a religious institution. Just a religious individual. Federal funding isn’t an issue for him, either.

    You can read the PPACA and the growing pages of recommendations for more.

    Bishop Zubik of the Catholic diocese of Pittsburgh went over some misconceptions about the mandate here in this article by Catholic News Service.

  • Dana

    See, this coverage hearkens back to the Catholic Charities cases in MA. Catholic Charities framed the argument in the media aas being “forced to close rather than violate religious doctrine regarding placing children with gay couples”. What the coverage left out was the fact that Catholic Charities took federal and state funds in order to operate, and had they been strictly self-funded, they could have continued operating in the manner they sought to.

    This issue is a massive, scary ghost in the coverage here. Privately funded private institutions should be able to run as they wish, under the rubric of religious liberty. But taking public funds and providing public services necessitates obligations to the public. ALL of them. Not just those who share the doctrinal beliefs which are raised some times and not others.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    Yes, while not everyone believes you forfeit religious freedom because you cooperate with the government, that is a distinctly different issue than the HHS mandate, which has nothing to do with federal funding.

  • Jeff

    Good job, Mollie and good job, St. Louis Post-Dispatch!

  • Dana

    I stand by my comment at 1. Cooperating with the govenrnment can mean a lot of things, such as adhering to licensure standards and local procedures for emergency treatment. But the gap in the coverage is this: the point is that if an institution takes governmental cash, and provides public services, then the government may correctly direct how those funds are used. The position paper I linked to shows how religious institutions have maintained their integrity while taking those governmental funds, proving it’s not impossible.

  • Dana

    Briefly, however, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act gives authority to HHS to develop a list of “preventive services” (and “preventive services for women”) to be covered in all private health plans without any cost sharing.

    I don’t see this in any of my sources, though there is mention of the exemption. Of course, HHS can regulate health care provided to all Americans, which may bump up against religious liberty at times. One good example is the practice of circumcision among Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, NY. Recently a second child died of herpes transmitted to him by the mohel performing the rite. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say, none of the Orthodox are raising “religious liberty” as an objection to HHS involvement in the case.

    The coverage of public funding / vs. private funding is lacking in the extreme. Even right here.

  • Dana

    Mollie, re: your comment at what is now # 4 – I find it odd that you would cite to the lawsuit of O’Brien Holdings vs. HHS. O’Brien is a corporation which may or may not be affected by the mandate. And we all know that just because someone sues, doesn’t mean they have standing to. If the law doesn’t affect you, there’s no right to sue.

    The twist in that case it this. You say that it’s not even a religious institution, just a religious individual.

    But, you’re wrong. Here, a Catholic blogger corrects you with source data from O’Brien’s website. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/yimcatholic/2012/03/obrien-industrial-holdings-llc-sues-the-hhs-department.html

    OBrien characterizes itself as a religious organization on its own website. I doubt it takes federal / state funding. So then the issue becomes whether the HHS law impacts it at all, or does the exemption apply. As you write the exemption, it would seem to. Interesting case.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    Just a reminder that this web site is for discussion of how the mainstream media handles religion news. You seem to want to debate the mandate, and that’s fine, but this is not the place for this.

    I went to the link you provided and found this:

    A Missouri business owner has become the first employer of a for-profit, secular company to bring a lawsuit challenging the Obama administration’s contraception mandate.

    I’m assuming you meant to send me to another site.

    Either way, keep comments focused on discussion of journalism. Not on your personal feelings about the mandate and such.


  • Dana

    Actually, Mollie, you didn’t read far enough.

    The Catholic publication that the quote came from is readily available at airports and bookstores, and it clearly defines O’Brien as a religious organization. Whether that’s poor writing, poor journalism, or just plain poor is one of the purposes of this site to discuss, no?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    We don’t analyze Catholic media, no. I’m not really sure what your point is but, again, we focus on how the mainstream media handles religion news.

    Catholic media, by virtue of being sectarian, is not mainstream media.

  • Dana

    Why on earth would a site devoted to journalistic integrity on the subject of religion NOT include journalistic data – both cited and sourced – that showed bias on the part of the religious?

    I think it’s disingenuous to say that my comments are contra to this site’s mission. I specifically addressed MSM media coverage of the issue of the Health Care Mandate – and a religious ghost in that coverage – in my comments.

    But thanks, Mollie. I think I understand where you, personally, stand on this issue a lot better.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    If you’d like to learn more about GetReligion, feel free to read this.

    We stick to a pretty narrow focus here, for a variety of reasons, but if you’re interested in that narrow focus, you’re more than welcome to participate in the conversation. Thanks!

  • Julia

    For what it’s worth –

    A law professor commenting on the O’Brien Holdings v HHS case describes the plaintiff as a private business owner and not as a religious organization.


    The same law professor also comments on the EWTN case against the HHS mandate, describing the plaintiff as a non-profit Catholic organization and also as a Catholic media network.

    Discussion of the Mandate in the media has generally focused on Catholic universities and hospitals. This appears to be the first significant challenge brought by an organization outside those two categories.


    Once these cases get to the appellate level, it will be interesting to see how the courts will view (and the media report)religious liberty as it pertains to:

    1) houses of worship;
    2) religiously-affiliated universities & hospitals;
    3) other non-profit organizations with religious connections and religion as their primary focus (like EWTN);
    4) non-profit organizations with religious connections and general relief as its focus (like Samaritan’s Purse);
    5) private for-profit companies whose owners’/shareholders’ personal religious beliefs are the issue; and
    6) unincorporated small for-profit businesses whose owner’s religious beliefs are the issue.

  • Dana

    But Julia, that’s a law professor’s opinion, not based on the statements of the company itself, recorded in a publication sympathetic to its cause. O’Brien states on its own website that it will make its work pleasing to the Lord. Kind of a conflict to say it’s secular, no?

    There’s a difference between making widgets, and Widgets Theat Jesus Would Use. Mollie missed that distinction. Why did you?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I’m having to delete quite a few comments.

    All comments that are off-topic may be deleted, particularly if they are unnecessarily hostile, etc.

    Feel free to learn a little bit about the GetReligion community before commenting and try to remain civil, etc.

    Thank you!

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    Your comments are being deleted because they are off-topic and lacking in civility.

    Should you wish to write comments that are on topic and civil, you are more than welcome to participate.

    Until then, your comments will continue to be deleted.

    And yes, this is a moderated community. We delete the comments all who are unnecessarily hostile, particularly those who have been warned and continue to behave in a rude manner. Threats, in particular, are unwelcome.

    Feel free to share the news that we moderate against such behavior as far and wide as you care to.



  • Jeff

    Once again, Mollie — good job!

  • Brian

    Here is the press release from the White House describing the mandate and the “accomodation”. The key point here is that clearly the President is dictating minimum requirements for all health plans to cover contraceptives, regardless of who is issuing it and who the employer is. Thus, the acceptance of federal money is not at stake. Rather, if the employer is large enough to be required to provide health insurance coverage to their employees, then that health insurance must include the disputed coverage.


    “Under the new policy to be announced today, women will have free preventive care that includes contraceptive services no matter where she works. The policy also ensures that if a woman works for a religious employer with objections to providing contraceptive services as part of its health plan, the religious employer will not be required to provide, pay for or refer for contraception coverage, but her insurance company will be required to directly offer her contraceptive care free of charge.

    Under Section 2713 of the Affordable Care Act, the Administration adopted new guidelines that will require most private health plans to cover preventive services for women without charging a co-pay starting on August 1, 2012. These preventive services include well women visits, domestic violence screening, and contraception, and all were recommended to the Secretary of Health and Human Services by the independent Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Science. (emphasis added)


  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Here in Boston 300 people rallied for religious freedom on the famed Boston Common across from the Ma. State House. In a survey of the Boston area mass media by a local Catholic blog (The Boston Insider) there was ZERO (that is “0″) coverage of the rally in the local mass media.
    Considering that if 5 or 10 people rally for any liberal cause, a favorable story about it is likely to show up on the front page above the fold.

  • Amyc

    In response to Deacon:

    You said: “Considering that if 5 or 10 people rally for any liberal cause, a favorable story about it is likely to show up on the front page above the fold.(sic)”

    Just two Saturdays ago, 10-20,000 atheists and secularists rallied on the National Mall in Washington D.C. and there was zero live coverage from any major news network. There were a few articles written (a couple positive, neutral and negative), but wouldn’t you expect a rally of thousands of people to be covered as well? Clearly there is bias, but I don’t think it’s necessarily liberal.

    Also, one slight quibble, “local mass media” is an oxy-moron, if it’s local, then it can’t also be mass media.