A group of Catholic laity has coordinated an ecumenical rally designed to educate the faithful about threats to religious liberty.
Steve Nash, vice chairman of the newly organized St. Peter's Fellowship, said the group's Religious Freedom Rally is set for June 23 at the Cox Convention Center in downtown Oklahoma City.
Nash, a member of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church, said the rally is being held in partnership with the Most Rev. Paul S. Coakley, archbishop of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City.
The Oklahoma City rally will take place during “Fortnight for Freedom,” a faith initiative created by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, of which Coakley is a member.
Coakley said the initiative is a 14-day period of prayer, education and action in support of religious freedom. He said it is one way the bishops hope to encourage parishioners across the country to weigh in on the “assault on religious liberty.”
At the heart of the matter is the bishops' ongoing concern with a federal mandate issued Jan. 20 that effectively requires faith-affiliated organizations to pay for contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs. The mandate would affect faith-affiliated hospitals, universities and agencies, and organizations were given one year to comply.
Coakley said the timing of the Fortnight for Freedom from June 21 to July 4 is no accident as July 4 is the day America celebrates its independence from a tyrannical British monarchy that squelched religious liberty.
“It was timed as an exclamation point — for emphasis,” he said. “There are certainly both religious and patriotic themes throughout this.”
Federal officials amended the mandate's requirements in February to make insurance companies instead of employers pay the costs of the contraception services. However, Coakley said, bishops across the country continue to oppose the mandate because it will still negatively impact faith-affiliated organizations, and they believe insurance companies will transfer those additional costs to employers anyway.
Sense of urgency
Coakley said Catholics have been joined by people of other Christian faith traditions in opposing the mandate. He said the rally, which will include Protestant as well as Catholic speakers, shows the unification that has manifested.
“It is an effort to build a broad coalition,” Coakley said. “We've been saying this is not a Catholic issue, it's an American issue. It's a human-rights issue.”
Coakley said there is a sense of urgency to the initiative and the related rallies due to the compliance deadline for the mandate.
“We want people to be praying and studying on these issues,” he said. “The rally is for motivation and inspiration.”
Nash said Pope Benedict XVI wrote several letters even before the mandate was made, urging priests to inform and engage laity to take the lead in the battle for religious freedom.
“They were announcing that we are entering into a time of persecution,” he said.
Nash said about 20 Catholics from five parishes in the archdiocese came together several weeks ago to form St. Peter's Fellowship. He said the group took the papal and bishops' requests seriously, and the upcoming rally is a result.
Nash said rally speakers include clergy leaders, scholars, politicians and others, including Coakley; state Attorney General Scott Pruitt; state Rep. Rebecca Hamilton, D-Oklahoma City; Bill Federer, author and TV news commentator; the Rev. Frank Cargill, superintendent of the Oklahoma District Council of Assemblies of God; and Michael Scaperlanda, University of Oklahoma professor.
Nash said he is pleased that the rally also has drawn interest from non-Catholics.
“What we're experiencing as a result of this mandate is unity among the body of Christ. There has been a lot of animosity between Catholics and Protestants historically, but we're going to set aside our differences and come together in this spiritual moment,” Nash said.
“It's a holy moment.”
Meanwhile, Coakley said a Mass for the Fortnight for Freedom will be held June 22, the night before the rally, at Our Lady's Cathedral, 3214 N Lake Ave.
Nash said rally attendees are encouraged to make a donation for admission to the event. He said he and other organizers have no idea how many people will show up for the rally, but they hope to draw about 15,000 or more.
“With the Thunder (Oklahoma City's NBA team), we know we can fill a sports arena. Now the question is: Can we fill the Cox Convention Center with believers who recognize the threat and stand in defense of religious liberty?” Nash said.
“We're looking to see how many people will be convicted by the Holy Spirit and come and stand together.”
Religious Freedom Rally