Patrick B. McGuigan
Odds are, Catholic Archbishop Paul S. Coakley has never had so many non-Catholic Christians standing to cheer him before, during and after a speech.
All that and more characterized the Saturday (June 23) Rally for Religious Freedom in downtown Oklahoma City, when three of Oklahoma’s best-known Christian preachers expressed solidarity with Coakley and America’s Catholic bishops in opposition to a controversial federal Health and Human Services mandate.
The edict would require religiously-affiliated institutions to provide abortafacients, sterilization and contraception coverage in employer-provided health insurance programs.
One of the ministers declared Coakley had taken on the role of “a Josiah” – referencing the young king of Israel in the Book of Kings, who called the nation of Judah back to faithful observance of Jewish traditions.
While Coakley was more modulated in his remarks than most speakers at the three-hour rally, his message was an unmistakable outline of opposition to the HHS mandate promulgated this year by the administration of President Barack Obama.
He described the origins of the rally in a decision by America’s Catholic bishops to call for a “fortnight for freedom” – a time of prayer, study and “Catechesis” (instruction in doctrine and matters of faith) for Catholics.
For the Archbishop and members of his flock in central and western Oklahoma, the fortnight commenced with a Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help on Friday (June 22).
He said freedom of religion is “a right we have perhaps naively taken for granted.” He characterized the HHS mandate as “morally offensive.” Coakley made clear he and his colleagues among the nation’s Catholic leadership “object to being compelled to pay for something contrary to our religious traditions and teachings.”
While detailing his Church’s specific objections to being forced to finance abortion, access to contraception and to sterilization, the Archbishop stressed that ultimately the issue is “whether or not government should be able to compel” churches to abandon faith observance in programs such as hospitals, universities and other activities.
He continued, “This is not a partisan issue. It is an American issue.” He argued that “separation of church and state” was intended to keep government “from interfering in the internal affairs of the church.” He said Catholics will oppose “piercing the veil of separation between Church and state” to allow government to define “who is and is not religious.”
Coakley explicitly rejected federal efforts in recent weeks to leave in place the mandate’s impact on Church-operated hospitals and educational institutions, while exempting parish churches. He pointed to the functions of such ministries as St. Anthony Hospital and the Sanctuary home for mothers – both archdiocesan-operated activities – to emphasize that such ministerial work is a direct extension of the Church itself: “We serve because we are Catholic, and these ministries are a central part of our faith.”
He rejected “a mandate to act against our consciences. This cannot stand.” He concluded, to another ovation: “Religious liberty is a right enshrined in our Constitution. It is not a right doled out to us by our government or any other governments. It is a universal human right bestowed on us by our Creator.”
Father Robert Wood, pastor at Guthrie’s St. Mary’s Parish, introduced a series of Christian ministers who declared their agreement with Coakley and with each other.
Pastor Frank Cargill, a regional leader in the Assembly of God, thanked Coakley directly for his leadership. He reviewed examples of Christian faith observance laced throughout the nation’s founding documents, and the legacy of colonial leaders who came from all major, and many minor, denominational allegiances.
Cargill listed a variety of restrictions on faith practices in public settings that have emerged in his lifetime. He called on those in attendance, saying: “Church – let us arise. Stand up!” He directly thanked Coakley for leading the local rally for freedom.
Pastor Ronnie Rogers of Norman’s Trinity Baptist Church delivered a scholarly and forceful critique of efforts to force separation of Christian faith from actions in the public arena. He pointed to the First Amendment language protecting Americans from congressional action restricting freedom of religion. The language that “Congress shall make no law” means, he said, “No law. What do they not understand about ‘no?’”
Rogers associated himself with the religious motivations of Christians who opposed the Civil War and who led the Civil Rights movement. He dated the birth of American liberty to promulgation of the Declaration of Independence.
Rogers concluded his remarks by saying: “We are here for our neighbors, our children and our grandchildren – and we will not retreat.”
Wood described Rogers address as “intelligent and thought-provoking.”
Rev. James Taylor of University Christian Church in Norman, a published writer in addition to his ministerial work in AIDS prevention, decried the “immorality and violence” that has come to characterize recent American history. The African-American minister said he would stand “with our Catholic brethren” in the present controversy.
Using a power point to support his narrative, Taylor apologized to Coakley for using a wrong photograph. But he quoted a letter Coakley sent to Oklahoma Catholics in which he wrote, “We cannot – we will not comply with this unjust law.” He pointed at the Catholic leader and said, “You have awakened a sleeping giant.” That comment provoked another standing ovation from the crowd at Oklahoma City’s Cox Convention Center Arena.
Taylor laced together a variety of Scriptural references -- Jeremiah 6:15,1 Peter 4:17 and 2 Chronicles 7:14, among others – to support his argument that restoration of American religious freedom must begin “in this room, among the people of God.”
He hailed American leaders of the past, including George Mason and Pastor/President James Garfield, to argue that America, like the nation of Israel, must remain true to its founding principles or risk judgment. Taylor praised Coakley as “a modern-day Josiah” for bringing forth the response of Christians in Oklahoma to unite against the HHS mandate and other government intrusions on religious observance.
William Federer, a widely published author of constitutional studies, narrated much of the concluding portion of the event, and also addressed the crowd.
U. S. Rep. James Lankford called upon the assembled group to support the ministers who had spoken, to pray for relief from the HHS mandate and to act in practical ways to oppose it. He laced his comments with references to the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistle to the Romans.
Lankford noted a significant Supreme Court decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that churches have exclusive rights to decide who is, or is not, a minister. He asked the audience, rhetorically, “Who do you trust? And, are you going to get to work?”
The conservative Republican introduced state Rep. Rebecca Hamilton, an Oklahoma City Democrat known for both her pro-life advocacy and her moderate voting record on economic policy issues.
Hamilton said, “The HHS mandate is the worst and strongest challenge to American constitutional government since the Civil War.” She stressed, “This mandate is not a law. It is an agency rule written by a private committee, some of whom have financial interests” in the policies it would advance.
She called on listeners to oppose this “attempt to redefine the First Amendment to the Constitution.” She begged attendees to avoid partisanship and take a positive, Christian approach in their advocacy. She hailed the bishops of her Church, saying, “This world is dying for Christian leadership, and they’re giving it to us.”
One spectactor cried out that what is happening in America is similar to what transpired in the early stages of the Third Reich in Germany. Hamilton said she agreed, while stressing she was not comparing anyone to Hitler in the present situation.
She continued, “If you want the freedom to worship God as you see fit, you’d better get ready to stop this thing now.”
Also addressing the crowd, estimated at 3,200, was state Attorney General Scott Pruitt. After Hamilton introduced him, Pruitt embraced his former colleague.
The Republican A.G. said the pending federal health care decision will be “the most momentous Supreme Court decision of this generation.” He continued, “This is a decision this will mark time.” Pruitt affiliated himself with the passionate comments of the Catholic archbishop, the Pentecostal minister, the Southern Baptist preacher and the Norman African-American Biblical scholar.
The event began with the country music group Mountain Smoke, posting of the colors by Scouts (Boys, Cubs and Venture) from St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Edmond, and a stirring tribute to U.S. military veterans.
The event featured the debut of a new version of “The Test of Fire” video that has now been packaged in both Catholic and Evangelical Christian editions. The video has become a bit of a sensation on the Internet, gaining some 1.7 million viewings on YouTube.
Adriana Gonzales, a film-maker and member of a group known as “Catholics Called to Witness” described what she called a miraculous response to the videos. When the video went viral in April, Huffington Post reported the video’s producers steered clear of advocating any partisan positions.
HuffPost reported the group’s website “includes links to statements from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that criticize President Barack Obama's administration for its controversial move to require that employers' health insurance plans to provide contraception coverage.”
Father Steven Hamilton, spiritual director of the sponsoring organization, St. Peter’s Fellowship, delivered a passionate opening prayer that drew shouts of “Amen” from the crowd of diverse Christian believers.
Steve Nash of the St. Peter’s Fellowship, moderator of the event, joshed during one portion of the program that the Catholic response to the mandate was “the first time in 2,000 years that Catholics have done something at the drop of a hat.”
Roughly an hour before the event concluded, he told the assembled crowd how the rally came about. Members of five Catholic parishes, after the U.S. Bishops’ declaration earlier this year, sought Archbishop Coakley’s blessing to form a new group of laymen to organize local opposition to the HHS mandate.
Having received Coakley’s support, they then approached Rev. Cargill, who immediately agreed to help broaden the effort with Pentecostal involvement. The other non-Catholic ministers followed in quick order, even as the fellowship sought a $100,000 loan from an Edmond bank to finance the rally and attendant costs, including rental of the Cox Arena.
Nash said that after the “miracles” of support across a spectrum of Christian denominations and securing the loan, he needed to ask for one more thing.
He told Saturday’s audience that members of the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic fraternal group were passing buckets around during the final hour of the rally, seeking further contributions.
He concluded, “If you folks help us cover the costs of this event, it will be another miracle.” He concluded, “This is your chance to save the Catholics. If we break even, we’re going to call it “The Baptist bailout.”