Last Friday, March 23, I attended a rally for religious freedom at the North Dakota Capitol in Bismarck protesting the Administration’s HHS mandate, which requires health plans to cover contraception, chemical abortion, and sterilization. Our rally was one of over one hundred and forty around the country.
I played a very small part in advising the organizers of our rally, and as it was being planned with little lead time, I was concerned turnout might be small, as we were holding the rally during the working day and especially as we were calling upon North Dakotans to take a stand, notoriously diffident citizens who lack activist genes and refrain from discussing religion and politics in polite company. Or any company whatsoever. Although we bleed Viking purple due to our proximity to Minnesota, we’re even nice to Packers fans. Would anyone show?
Over seven hundred North Dakotans turned out for the rally.
North Dakotans will turn out in large numbers for high school sports, and (honest to goodness) for things like fundraising dinners featuring Lutefisk, that piece of cod which surpasseth all understanding. That so many turned out for a political event is telling: people are existentially concerned about this existential threat to religious freedom.
There was a solitary silent counterprotester present for the duration of the rally, a woman perhaps late teens or early twenties, holding up a sign which said (what else?) “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries.” Towards the end of the rally, she was joined by a couple others presumably protesting, and they were respectfully engaged by an older nun.
Her sign encapsulates the position of our opposition, the pelvic left: Supposedly Catholics (“keep your rosaries”) are engaged in a war against women (“off my ovaries”). But is this true? The rally itself refutes the idea.
First, our rally was organized by women. With ovaries, even. The rally wouldn’t have happened here in Bismarck except for the initiative of two concerned middle-class wives and mothers, Kim H. and Rebecca L.
Second, our rally was organized and promoted by laypeople. The organizers sought and received clergy involvement, but the rally was organized and executed by laypeople.
Third, our rally was interdenominational. Obviously many Catholics were there, and letters from Bishop David Kagan (Bismarck) and Bishop Samuel Aquila (Fargo) were read by surrogates, while Fr. Chad Gion of Spirit of Life parish across the river in Mandan delivered the main address. But many in the crowd were Lutherans, Pentecostals, Baptists, and others. Indeed, Pastor Matt Thompson of Holy Cross Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Bismarck offered the invocation, while the indefatigable Pastor Pebbles Thompson (no relation), an Assemblies of God minister from Fargo-Moorhead, offered the closing prayer.
Fourth, our rally was nonpartisan. The issue seems partisan, given the mandate is the current Administration’s cynical ploy and given that the resistance to it has found a political home largely in the GOP. But many — though probably not most — citizens attending the rally affiliate with the Democrats, as have most Catholics in American history and most Catholics today. Not that most Democrats at the national level, like ND’s senior senator, Kent Conrad, have been much help. Indeed, the bishop of Bismarck, David Kagan, is not pleased at all with Conrad’s action on this matter (pdf; see also here for local coverage of +Kagan’s concerns). The Democrat candidate who would replace Conrad, who is retiring, is Heidi Heitkamp, who appears in ads involving the “war on women” meme.
But the first freedom of the First Amendment shouldn’t be a partisan issue. If the religious freedom rallies appear partisan, remember who started this fight, and for what ends. If singing America the Beautiful and supporting the First Amendment is partisan, well…
Fifth, our rally simply sought a return to the status quo ante. The whole mandate maelstrom is bizarre. Here we are as Catholics and other Christians, minding our own business, serving fellow citizens in our colleges, universities, hospitals, and ministries, when the mandate gets dropped on us. And we protest. And then we’re accused of waging a “war against women.” It’s a bit like blaming Poland for the unpleasantness at the Katyn Forest. The pelvic left commits aggression and then plays the victim, à la Rod Dreher’s two rules of the culture war:
The First Law of the Culture War: Conservatives are always and everywhere the aggressors.
The Second Law of the Culture War: The existence of conservative values, traditions, and institutions constitute acts of aggression.
Hence, “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries” when we’re simply asking for the status quo ante.
So what now? What will be the longer-term relevance of the rallies?
First, for the time being, we’re holding our breath regarding the outcome of the Supreme Court’s deliberations regarding the PPACA, and many of us have been heartened by the oral arguments this week, in which the Administration’s Solicitor General, Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., engaged in what amounted to epic fail in the eyes of most liberal commentators, and in which it seems the comments of a crucial justices (Scalia and Kennedy) indicate the slightest majority will not only find the mandate unconstitutional but also smite the whole law hip and thigh. For many of us, then, hope and change are making a comeback.
But we shouldn’t get cocky, for Anthony Kennedy is involved, as Adam White at The Weekly Standard reminds us:
But in this case, there is a further caveat: even if a justice’s comments at oral argument did reflect his own conclusions, we must not assume that his conclusions this week will not change in the weeks to come. And of course, the justice I have in mind on this point is Justice Kennedy.
Kennedy is not just the “swing justice,” poised in the middle of the Court in this particular case. He is also known to reconsider his initial conclusions once he starts seeing draft opinions. As any lawyer knows, a legal argument that seems compelling in conversation might well fall apart once it is put to paper; sometimes an argument “just won’t write.” His former clerk, law professor Michael Dorf, explained this process Wednesday morning to Bloomberg Radio’s Tom Keene and Ken Prewitt:
“He doesn’t fully know how he should be deciding a case until he ‘tries it on.’ That is, he will see if a position he wants to take will, as he says, ‘write.’ That is, he will try to draft an opinion; if he finds it persuasive to himself, he’ll stick with it. He sometimes finds, ‘you know, I just can’t make this work, I’m going to come out the other way.’ So it could well be the case that he hasn’t decided yet, and he might vote at the conference at the end of the day today or Friday and still not have decided before he sees how it comes out.”
Smith then relates some of the saddest words I’ve ever read:
Lawyers familiar with the Supreme Court’s decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) know this all too well. As James Simon recounted in The Center Holds, seven of the Court’s nine justices voted at post-argument conference to reverse Roe v. Wade and strike down Pennsylvania’s anti-abortion laws. Chief Justice Rehnquist happily assigned himself the majority opinion—but in the weeks that followed, Justice Kennedy reconsidered his vote. With Justices David Souter and Sandra Day O’Connor, who also had changed their minds, a new opinion was secretly drafted, preserving Roe‘s basic protection of abortion. When word spread within the Court that the three Justices had changed their minds, it “was as if a neutron bomb had exploded,” Simon recounted. ”Chief Justice Rehnquist attempted to talk Kennedy out of his support for the joint opinion, and Justice Scalia, less diplomatically than the chief, expressed his outrage to Kennedy.” Yet Justice Kennedy did not return to his original conclusions; in the process of drafting the opinion, he had irreversibly changed his mind.
Kennedy is one of the three justices responsible for these infamous words from the majority opinion on Casey:
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.
Obviously that’s not the only thing Kennedy has ever thought, and I wouldn’t want to use Casey in support of anything. On the other hand, if the liberal justices on the court along with Kennedy think along such lines, then the mandate should be overturned 9-0. In theory.
So while the fate of this legislation and the conscience rights of millions appear to hang in the legal balances of one man’s mind, we wait, we pray, we hope.
Second, regardless of the outcome at the Supreme court, we are gearing up. The rally itself lasted an hour. But it was both the result of the awareness that something is fundamentally wrong in our polity and also an impetus to further action. Even if the Supreme Court rescues us, either by overturning the mandate or by ruling in our favor in other legal challenges, we Christians will not forget this brazen assault on our liberties, for we too are citizens. Many of us have been raised up from our political slumber, and realize we can never again sleep and assume the government will leave us alone. We forgive wrongs when asked (cf. Luke 17:3-4), but in the meantime we do not forget.