WASHINGTON – Demonstrators gathered on Capitol Hill Friday afternoon decried the Obama administration's policy to require private health insurance plans to cover contraception as a violation of religious freedom.
The rally was affiliated with more than 100 other demonstrations under the same name taking place across the country. The issue has united multiple faiths, with evangelical, Orthodox Jewish, Roman Catholic and Mormon leaders recently forming networks in every state dedicated to promoting religious liberty, starting with their opposition to the mandate.
Last year, an advisory panel from the Institute of Medicine, which advises the federal government, recommended including birth control on the list of covered services for women. But many faith and political leaders argued that the mandate's exception for religious groups was too narrow.
In response, Obama offered to soften the rule so that insurers would pay for birth control instead of religious groups. Roman Catholic bishops and others have said that the accommodation, which is still under discussion, doesn't go far enough to protect religious freedom. Lawsuits have been filed in at least eight states.
In Washington, former GOP presidential hopeful and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota said the heart of the issue was the protection of religious freedom.
"This president on that day of his inauguration lifted up his right hand and he swore before all of America that he would uphold and defend and protect the Constitution of the United States," Bachmann said. Someone in the crowd shouted: "Liar!"
Bachmann continued, "But he has had no problem telling the religious organizations and the religious-oriented people of this nation that they must be forced to violate their religious beliefs under his health care mandate."
In Indianapolis, about 300 activists gathered on the south lawn of the Statehouse carrying signs reading "Stop Obama's HHS Mandate!" and "Stand up for Religious Freedom!" and cheered speakers from groups including Indiana Right to Life, Americans for Prosperity and the Catholic Church.
Monsignor Joe Schaedel, pastor at St. Luke's Catholic Church in Indianapolis, told the crowd that talk of exemptions from the administration are hollow.
"Jesus Christ and his 12 apostles couldn't get an exemption," Schaedel said. "Make no mistake: Religious freedom is the issue!"
In New Jersey, many of those who rallied at the Statehouse in Trenton first went to Mass at St. Mary of Assumption Cathedral.
"There is no 'war on contraception' in our country," said Marie Tasy, executive director of New Jersey Right to Life. "Contraception is already widely, cheaply available. What's really under attack today is religious freedom."
But Jennifer Miller, a vice president at Planned Parenthood in Trenton, said the rallies were being held by extremist groups that have a long history of attacking women's health.
"Simply put, anti-women's health groups want to take a huge step backward for women's health," Miller wrote in an email. "If they had their way, more women would be uninsured, medical discrimination against women would be legal again, and women would once again be forced to pay more for health care and get less for their health care dollars than men."
Associated Press writers Tom LoBianco in Indianapolis and Andrew Duffelmeyer in Trenton, N.J., contributed to this report.