After drawing 54,000 people to 143 nationwide protests, leaders of the Stand Up For Religious Freedom campaign are more determined than ever to end the federal contraception mandate.
"From coast to coast, the response of the crowds at these rallies was a tremendous optimism that we can change the HHS mandate," said Pro-Life Action League Executive Director Eric Scheidler, who planned the March 23 "Rally for Religious Freedom" with Citizens for a Pro-Life Society.
"People came out for the very first time in their lives, to any sort of grassroots protest activity," Scheidler said of Stand Up For Religious Freedom's first effort.
"That happened in Chicago. It happened in San Francisco, in Washington, D.C., in New York, Philadelphia, and other large cities."
Each of those cities drew between 900 and 2,500 people, united in their desire to restore religious freedom by ending the president's contraception coverage rule.
"Before the rally, there was a real sense almost of despair – and certainly discouragement – that the federal government would be trying to strong-arm the religious institutions of this country," Scheidler said, describing the mood he observed after the controversial rule was confirmed earlier this year.
Health and Human Services' rule, requiring many religious institutions to offer contraception, sterilization, and abortion-causing drugs through their health plans, is being challenged in court by eight states. Scheidler said the rallies allowed individuals and communities to take a stand as well.
"People were hearing about it on Facebook, on Twitter, in the 'blogosphere,' and on Christian radio," the event's co-organizer recalled.
"Finally, in the days before the rally, they were hearing about it through the secular media."
The result was a broad coalition, drawing citizens of all faiths and none. "Catholic, Protestant, Jewish – even atheists and pagans came out to protest the HHS mandate, in unity with each other."
Turnout at last week's rallies exceeded Scheidler's expectations, and confirmed his sense that March 23 was "a starting point" for the larger effort.
"I was hoping that we just might be able to reach 10,000 attendees across the country," Scheidler said. "In fact, we've confirmed over 54,000 people came out, and that number's climbing as I get reports."
"Every indication is that the rallies were not an end, but a beginning – because people are fired up now."
Participants at the events were urged to take action in the weeks and months to come, by raising awareness among their friends and neighbors and calling on members of Congress.
Public education is "critical" in fighting the mandate, Scheidler said.
"There's been so much misinformation. This controversy has been so falsely presented to, and by, the mainstream media. We really have to work very hard to educate our neighbors and fellow church-goers."
He said public officials should also be called upon to defend conscience rights, whether or not this goal can be secured in the short-term.
"We realize that with Barack Obama in the White House, our chances of a legislative victory on this issue are perishingly thin."
"Yet every time we can raise this issue, every time there's a vote against the mandate – even when we lose a vote … that gives us yet another opportunity to publicly educate on this issue, and apply greater political pressure to have it overturned."
More than 60 organizations have joined the Pro-Life Action League and Citizens for a Pro-Life Society, in the Stand Up For Religious Freedom movement's "Coalition to Stop the HHS Mandate."
As that coalition grows, Scheidler encouraged supporters to turn to God in prayer – for their cause, and for those who oppose it.
"Pray for those forces in our culture that have been fighting for this mandate," the Pro-Life Action League's executive director said, citing Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and the Feminist Majority Foundation.
"Pray for our president – that he will have a conversion of heart, that he will relinquish this drive to push religious institutions out of the public square."