They were part of a nationwide "Stand Up for Religious Freedom" rally that took place simultaneously in 140 cities – including New Haven – on the second anniversary of the national health reform law (The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.)
Speaking in Hartford was Joseph Scheidler, president of the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League, who spearheaded the national event.
"This is much more than we expected," he said, looking out in amazement at the crowd gathered in the Constitution State’s capital city, dubbed the insurance capital of the world.
Initally, "we wanted to get 30 cities," he said, but "we got 30 cities the first day."
As horns honked from passing cars and as signs, balloons and flags flew in the breeze, Peter Wolfgang, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, which co-sponsored the rally with the Connecticut Right to Life Corporation (CLRC), said that the heart of the issue is the First Amendment and freedom of religion.
"This is not about contraceptives," nor is it about the Catholic Church, he said. "This affects the religious liberty of every one of us, regardless of our denomination.
"It’s an attack on the First Amendment … it’s an attack on all of us," he said.
Chris Mancini, a member of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in Southington, who was in the crowd with her husband, noted, "We don’t believe this is a Catholic issue. It’s a God-given liberty issue."
In a news release, Bill O’Brien, president of the CLRC, listed recent government infringements on religious liberty and stated that the rallies were being held to "counter the increasing and unprecedented unconstitutional attacks on our religious freedom."
Mr. Wolfgang, who charged that the government is "redefining what a religious institution is" and "what health care is in our law," noted that organizations that fail to comply with the mandate face huge fines – as much as an estimated $10 million for Notre Dame University alone.
"What we have here is some thing that is unprecedented," he said. Going back to when the Bill of Rights with its First Amendment was enacted in 1791, he said, "Never in the history of our country has the federal government attacked our religious liberties the way they are doing today."
State Senator Michael McMcLachlan, a Republican representing Danbury’s 24th District, used the rally to dispel confusion over language about separation of church and state used by Thomas Jefferson in a letter he wrote to Danbury Baptists in 1801. He called it the most "misunderstood, misconstrued" piece of writing in the history of the United States.
Most people, he said, use that phrase as a defense against religious liberty because they believe it means, "church, stay out of government. That’s not what it’s about," he said. "The First Amendment is: government, stay out of church."
Also rallying the crowd, State Rep. T.R. Rowe, a Republican from Trumbull, called the "stifling of our religious liberties" with the required health care initiatives, "perhaps the clearest and most outrageously unconstitutional mandates that this great nation has ever seen."
Equally outraged, constitutional attorney Martha A. Dean, a former candidate for state attorney general, explained that the source of and moral argument for the nation’s freedom and rights that form the foundation of the Constitution is God.
"Our founders did not create rights," she said, quoting basic beliefs set forth by Samuel Adams, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. "Our rights predate our Constitution … our rights are unalienable because they come from God."
Last month, the Obama administration’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) attempted to negotiate a compromise with Catholic leaders that would exempt the Church’s schools, hospitals and clinics; but Catholic bishops were not swayed.
The rally took place just days before the Supreme Court began tackling the constitutionality of the 2000-page health care reform legislation beginning March 26.
Today’s rally "goes beyond the Catholic Church in the state," said Father Robert J. Rousseau, director of archdiocesan Pro-life Activities. "This is for everybody’s rights," he noted, "because if they remove our rights, who’s next?"
The rally in New Haven drew several hundred people to the Richard C. Lee Federal Courthouse, according to Norma Contois of Branford, who was its organizer and emcee.
The three speakers there were Isabel Marin and Travis Heine, both students at Yale University, and Estelle Stevenson, Connecticut state coordinator for We the People of Connecticut, Inc., a nonprofit constitution lobby.
Dominican Fathers Hugh Vincent Dyer and Peter John Cameron also participated.