WHEELING - Starting June 21, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is calling on people to peacefully protest the government's mandate that health insurers cover the cost of birth control.
And two local dioceses - the Diocese of Steubenville and the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese - also believe people's religious freedoms are being trampled on because of the new law.
The conference is calling its 14-day period of "prayer, education and action in support of religious freedom" the "Fortnight for Freedom." It begins June 21 and lasts until July 4 - Independence Day.
A few parishioners exit St. Joseph Cathedral in Wheeling after Mass. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Fortnight for Freedom begins June 21.
Pat DeFrancis, Steubenville Diocese communications director, said her diocese "under the leadership of its diocesan administrator Msgr. Kurt H. Kemo, stands with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that objects to the coverage and says the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services contraceptive mandate is radically flawed."
DeFrancis said to inform parishioners inserts for church bulletins have been printed for distribution to parishes for Masses.
"In addition, Msgr. Kemo has encouraged parishioners in the diocese to send an email message to HHS, as they continue to pray during this time that religious freedom is attacked," she said.
"The Diocese of Steubenville is, under a federal proposal, an exempt organization, thus, the law would not impact it or its employees. The diocese, however, always expects its employees to follow Catholic teaching. As stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, children are seen as the supreme gift of marriage and contribute greatly to the good of the parents themselves," she added.
Wheeling resident Kim Michaud, a Catholic, believes the Fortnight might unify people, but it won't have any impact on or change the minds of the Obama administration.
"They are absolutely trampling on our religious freedoms. ... I see it as a step toward eradicating religious authority period," Michaud said. "The people are pushing back, but 'we the government' will determine how you will live your life and tell you what's best for you."
Michaud said she's not surprised by the mandate, but noted she wished the Catholic church had acted sooner. She believes more institutions will drop their health insurance plans in protest of the government's mandate. Last month, Franciscan University of Steubenville decided to stop offering health insurance plans for its students because of the mandate. It also has filed a lawsuit against some of Obama's cabinet members that claims the federal health care law violates the First Amendment among other issues.
Wheeling resident Denis Wilson, also a Catholic, noted the bishops in the beginning were in favor of the federal health care law.
"To me, it's a political thing - they slipped it in there to placate a wing of their party," Wilson said of the contraceptive mandate. "This blindsided the bishops. They thought there would be a conscience clause, an exception."
In his most recent pastoral letter on the matter, the Most Rev. Michael Bransfield, bishop of the Wheeling-Charleston Catholic Diocese, said the federal health care law - the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act - sought to remedy many of the problems he was concerned with when he first came to West Virginia.
"Indeed, it has already expanded health care coverage to young adult children of parents with insurance and to many more of the working poor. Therefore, it is with great sorrow that I observe this year has marked decisions by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services which, in the name of extending insurance, attacks the religious liberty of many Catholic institutions. The January 20 mandate of HHS jeopardizes the ability of religiously-sponsored entities to continue important works of healing without violating the Gospel of Life and individual consciences," Bransfield said.
In this letter, Bransfield encourages people to "speak out in favor of religious liberty."
"You will recall that the feast of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More beginning the Fortnight for Freedom is a memorial of great martyrs who remained faithful in the face of persecution by political power. I scarcely need to point out the suitability of concluding the Fortnight with our national memorial to Freedom," he said.
"West Virginians, with their state motto - 'mountaineers are always free' - treasure the ability to live according to one's creed. So many citizens of this state have literally spilled blood in the defense of the American tradition of liberty, not least religious liberty. As Catholics and citizens, we should all be familiar with the basis in scripture, theology, philosophy, and the American legal tradition of the right to religious liberty."
Wanda Franz, president of West Virginians for Life, an anti-abortion group, said the HHS mandate is not just a Catholic issue. Her organization, she noted, is behind the bishops' efforts. She said while the mandate does not explicitly call for the coverage of abortions, it is a step in that direction.
"These types of provisions are woven throughout," Franz said. "They thought taking on the bishops would be easier than putting abortion in first."