A religious gathering punctuated by fiery speeches and standing ovations brought Catholics and Protestants together Saturday, united against a common enemy.
Rally for Religious Freedom speakers, including a Roman Catholic archbishop, a Pentecostal leader and a Southern Baptist pastor, said threats to religious liberty should trouble all people of faith.
The rally at the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City was hosted by a group of Catholic laity called St. Peter's Fellowship, and it drew about 3,200 people. Organizers said it was held in conjunction with the “Fortnight For Freedom,” a faith initiative born out of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' outrage over a U.S. Health and Human Services mandate that effectively requires faith-affiliated organizations to pay for contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs.
In his speech that kicked off the rally, the Most Rev. Paul S. Coakley, archbishop of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, said the broader and most troubling concern about the federal mandate is what the U.S. bishops see as the federal government's infringement on religious liberty.
“The government has picked this fight, and we cannot afford to back away from it. There is simply too much at stake for us all,” Coakley said.
He reminded those in attendance that the “Fortnight For Freedom” is a rallying cry for the faithful to pray against threats to religious freedom, to help educate others about the issues at hand and to stand with American bishops in their battle against the mandate.
“The government has no business defining religion or religious entities,” Coakley said, adding that the religious freedom issue is not a partisan issue.
The Rev. Frank Cargill, superintendent of the Oklahoma District Council of Assemblies of God, likened threats to religious freedom to an “aggressive cancer.”
“The tyranny of government interference in religious affairs must stop at the doors of our daily living,” he said.
Cargill said Christians have watched as prayer was taken out of school, among other things. He said believers must stand up now for their religious freedom and not allow July 4 to “merely become another holiday.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, freedom came with a fight,” he said.
The Rev. Ronnie Rogers, senior pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist church in Norman, also spoke. He said secularists, “with a host of uninformed Americans,” have distorted the First Amendment and have started to minimize the Declaration of Independence.
Rogers, like Cargill and Coakley, urged attendees to help fight for religious freedom.
“We're here for our neighbors and our grandchildren and our faithfulness to God and we will not retreat,” he said.
‘A sleeping giant'
Another Norman pastor, the Rev. James Taylor of University Christian Church, commended Coakley for joining with other American bishops to challenge the mandate.
“What Mr. Coakley was effectively saying was ‘Mr. President, you have, unbeknown to you, kicked and awakened a sleeping giant,'” Taylor said.
Other speakers at the rally included U.S. Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City; state Rep. Rebecca Hamilton, D-Oklahoma City, and Bill Federer, author and TV news commentator.
Agree with bishops
Marshall and Melissa Helsel, of Mustang, said they attended the rally because they agree with the U.S. bishops' stance against the Health and Human Services mandate.
“We're really concerned not just about this issue but about the government's intervention in religious freedom in general,” Melissa Helsel said. She said she and her husband attend St. John Nepomuk Catholic Church in Yukon.
Marshall Helsel agreed.
“This is something that all people of all faiths need to take seriously at this time in this country,” he said.
A similar rally was recently held in Tulsa and other such gatherings are being held throughout the country. At Saturday's rally, donations to help pay for the event were accepted at the door, and attendees also were given a chance to make donations during the affair.