Despite the biting cold, more than 200 members of the Long Island-based advocacy group Catholics for Freedom of Religion rallied outside Mercy Medical Center on Nov. 13 to raise awareness of upcoming changes in health care.
The crowd came from parishes across the Island to protest an impending mandate from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services calling for fines of $100 per employee per day for institutions that refuse to offer health insurance coverage of FDA-approved contraceptives, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs. The mandate, part of the Affordable Care Act, will go into effect on Jan. 1.
“The question for us, when exercising our religious freedom … is this: What are we going to do about it?” asked the Rev. Douglas Arcoleo of the Church of Our Holy Redeemer in Freeport. “It is my hope and prayer that if in fact we were threatened with fines, imprisonment, and even death for non-compliance … that we would embrace and accept them, rather than transgress the natural law, or any of the laws handed down to us by the Founding Fathers of this nation, by Abraham, our father in faith, and by those who have walked by that faith in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.”
The group hopes to raise awareness of what it describes as a “tyrannical” mandate, which, it claims, will strip freedom of religion from Catholic hospitals across the nation — including Mercy, part of the Catholic Health Services of Long Island, which encompasses six acute-care hospitals, three nursing homes, a home health agency and hospice, a community-based agency for people with special needs and a regional lab.
Among the crowd were representatives of numerous parishes, Kellenberg High School, the Sisters of the Poor and the Diocese of Rockville Centre, including Bishop Paul Walsh and Thomas Renker, who serves as general counsel for the diocese.
Renker took to the podium to explain the lawsuit filed by the Archdiocese of New York in May 2012 against Health and Human Services and the U.S. departments of labor and the treasury, which claims that the mandate “unconstitutionally attempts to define the nature of the Church’s religious ministry and would force religious employers to violate their consciences.”
“What is most alarming, perhaps, to the folks on this side of this issue, is that the government argues in essence that the burden on our conscience is de minimus. Minimal. No big deal,” said Renker. “As if they have the standing to tell people what their consciences should and should not be affected by.”
The event’s organizer, Barbara Samuells, said that despite both its location and the diocesan involvement, Rockville Centre does not currently have its own branch of Catholics for Freedom of Religion — something Samuells said she hopes will change by the end of this year.