Fighting for Religious Freedom in Topeka

An article by Fr. Matthew Habiger OSB

Americans believe that a democracy means a government ruled by the people. Elected officials are directly accountable to their electorates.  The government exists to serve the people, and not the other way around. If the government oversteps its boundaries, and attempts to force its will upon the people in ways that violate basic human rights and principles laid down in our foundational documents, then the people must register their disapproval and take corrective measures.

That is what responsible citizenship means.  That is what true, responsible citizens must do.  There was a great expression of this on Wednesday, February 17, 2016, at the Statehouse in Topeka.  It was a Rally for Religious Freedom, sponsored by the Kansas Catholic Conference, and organized by Michael Schuttloffel, Executive Director. 

I went from Atchison with Sherry Lang and 7 parishioners of St. Benedict’s Parish.  Fr. Jeremy Hepler and Fr. Roderic Giller went with 7 students from the Maur Hill--Mount Academy.  It was a wonderful experience of the democratic process at work.

The Rally took place on the second floor of the Statehouse, outside the legislature chambers.  Governor Sam Brownback wanted the legislators to feel the concerns of those gathered for the rally.  Sherry Lang recalls that this was quite a contrast from previous years when Governor Kathleen Sebilius refused to allow pro-life tables or rallies to be held inside the Capitol Building. Over 1,500 people came from across the state.

It was thrilling to see and hear the speakers speak directly to the abuses of government in the area of religious freedom.  This would not happen in such countries as Cuba, Venezuela or Russia.  Each of the speakers explained what was involved when an administration places restrictions and penalties on the right to religious freedom.  

This right is a natural right, coming directly to us from God, our creator.  It is not a gift to us from the Constitution, or the government, or from society.  What a government can give, it can also take away.  Indeed, this right is the foundation for all the other natural human rights.  Each citizen has a God-given right to worship according to his or her best understanding of God, and then to be an active player in the public square where the culture is being shaped with the values of many citizens.  Religion is not to be privatized, or restricted to the walls of a local church building.  It is to be brought directly into public policy.  The government is to remain strictly neutral to all matters theological, unless the common good is being clearly threatened.

The slate of speakers was superb.  The keynote speaker was Ryan Anderson, who researches and writes about marriage and religious liberty as the William E. Simon senior research fellow in American principles and public policy at The Heritage Foundation.  He is the author The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom.  He spoke at Benedictine College two months ago.

Then three speakers followed, each of whom has been penalized by this administration for exercising their right to religious freedom.  Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers, was prosecuted by the Washington State Attorney General for not participating in a same-sex wedding ceremony.  She did not wish that the abuses she experienced in Washington State would happen to anyone elsewhere.  

  • Everett Piper, a lawyer and President of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, is a litigant in the lawsuit against the HHS Mandate, forcing him to provide contraception and abortion to his faculty and administration.  He drew attention to how the U.S. Department of HHS is bullying the Little Sister of the Poor to do this, or to be heavily penalized.
  • Hernan Castano, is one of the “Houston Five” pastors whose sermons were subpoenaed by the City of Houston.  He deplored the intrusion of the government into the internal affairs of faith and morals in his ministry.  The city government of Houston is using its legal clout to silence any reference to same-sex “marriage” as contrary to God’s design for marriage.
  • Jeanne Mancini, successor to Nelly Grey, and now President of the March for Life, pleaded for the rights of the unborn child to be protected by the law.

The final speaker was Governor Sam Brownback, who is arguably the most pro-life governor in the nation.  He was given national recognition during the 2016 March for Life for his endorsement of the Anti-Dismemberment of the Unborn Child bill.  He drew attention to the history of Kansas as a state that has traditionally addressed real issues confronting the nation, and has provided good leadership.  He encouraged all present to make a strong defense for the right to religious freedom.  A true Kansan does not back down when their rights are being offended.  They are willing to stand up for the right, and to never become despondent or discouraged.

Archbishop Joseph Naumann gave the closing prayer.  Two other bishops from the state were there.

Atchisonians can be very proud of the very engaging and welcoming MC for the rally – Sarah Swafford, who gives chastity talks on EWTN and to audiences nationwide.  Her husband, Andrew, is a professor in the Benedictine College theology department, and her father, Jerry Henry, is a state representative.

This rally could be used as a model for similar rallies in defense of religious freedom in all the other States.  May they take note, and follow the Kansas example.  We commend the organizers of this rally.