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Thousands Rally For Religious Freedom Nationwide

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Across the country, thousands of people skipped lunch Friday to protest what they see as a threat to religious liberties in the United States.

The protesters' specific complaint was the birth control mandate in the new health care law, but the discontent runs far deeper.

It didn't take much for the Rev. Pat Mahoney, an evangelical minister, to warm up the crowd in Washington. He gazed out at hundreds of people who filled the plaza in front of Kathleen Sebelius' office at the Department of Health and Human Services.

"Come on," Mahoney urged the crowd. "We want Secretary Sebelius to hear you!"

Beyond Birth Control

Earlier this year, Sebelius announced that the nation's new health care law would require some religious organizations, like Catholic hospitals and universities, to provide birth control coverage to employees.

Many conservative Catholics and evangelicals — not to mention the Catholic bishops — were furious at the announcement. That anger sparked the nationwide rallies, dubbed "Stand Up For Religious Freedom."

Kristan Hawkins, head of the organization Students for Life, says the contraception requirement is an attack on religion — and that the Obama administration is sending a hostile message to believers. "This is where tyranny begins," she told the boisterous crowd.

Kathleen Burke, a Catholic who took the day off to attend the rally, says the White House is stepping into people's private lives.

"The government has no business telling me what I need to buy," Burke says. "What, are you going to tell me I need to buy broccoli next?"

Nearby, Patty Weaver, a home schooling mother and evangelical, says the mandate is an affront to American ideals.

"People came over here — the Pilgrims — not for free health care," she says. "They came over for freedom. And we're losing our freedom. We're losing it every day."

Rallies like this one took place in approximately 140 places across the country Friday. Hundreds turned out in Philadelphia, including Episcopalian Robert Mansfield, an Iraq war veteran.

"We didn't travel 7,000 miles to have the government tell us how we're going to practice our faith. If they're coming after the Catholics, they're coming after us next," Mansfield says.

In Nashville, Tenn., evangelical Teresa Reff worries that people of faith soon won't be able to practice any type of religion in public.

"They've taken prayer out of school; they've taken Scripture-reading out of school. They want to get rid of the Bible clubs that are in school," she says. "It's just systematic taking-away, and if we sit by and do nothing, then we'll be like Communist Russia or China where it's against the law to even go to church."

A Vocal Minority

As lively as these rallies are, pollster Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute says they're not representative of the views of most Americans.

"Most Americans — including most Catholics — do not believe that the right of religious liberty is being threatened in America today," Jones says.

Jones says the group most worried about an erosion of religious freedom is white evangelicals. And in this election year, they're joining forces with conservative Catholics and finding a cause they can rally around.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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