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Some local Catholic parishes rally for 'religious freedom'

Nearly 20 Catholic parishes around the Chicago region are hosting rallies and prayer services to support religious freedom, which they say is threatened by the government.

They’re part of "Fortnight for Freedom," a national Catholic response to Obama’s healthcare plan and the mandate that allows women who work for Catholic institutions to get contraceptives through their employers’ insurance. 

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops launched "Fortnight for Freedom" to unite Catholics who oppose the healthcare law. After the Supreme Court ruling largely upholding the law Thursday, the Conference urged Congress to pass legislation to “fix those flaws.”

Father Fanelli is the pastor of St. Thomas More Parish on Chicago’s Southwest Side. He said the government is restricting religious rights by mandating insurance coverage for contraceptives, which Catholics believe is a sin.

 “There is a kind of persecution, you might say, of Catholics at this time,” Father Fanelli said. “This is an action that has never been taken before by any government towards religious people, and Catholics in particular. So we’re praying a lot that we’ll have that freedom again.”

His church is dedicating a prayer at every mass during the two-week campaign. Fanelli says the congregation is particularly passionate because the church’s namesake, St. Thomas More, is the patron saint of religious liberty.

Other Catholic groups have jumped into the debate.

The Catholic Health Association has supported the Obama healthcare plan, and issued this response to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that largely upheld it: “We are pleased that, based on an initial read of the ruling, the ACA has been found constitutional and will remain in effect. CHA has long supported health reform that expands access and coverage to everyone.”

The Catholic Conference of Illinois launched a program to inform Catholics about state and federal government issues affecting the church. It’s called the Illinois Catholic Advocacy Network or I-CAN.

Catholic Conference Executive Director Robert Gilligan said they have distributed pew cards at churches so people can sign up for updates.

“We are participating with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in trying to urge Congress to pass pieces of legislation that would affect this issue,” Gilligan said. “We support the bishops’ position.”

“We’re trying to let Catholics know that they can approach public policy issues from the lens of their faith,” Gilligan said.

The Archdiocese of Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George addressed clergy and Catholic leaders at a conference in Skokie to prepare for the Fortnight. The “Religious Liberty and Freedom of Conscience Conference” focused on how to effectively communicate the politics of this issue to congregations.

Father Thomas Baima, vice rector at University of Saint Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary (the major seminary for the Archdiocese), also spoke at the event. Baima said the purpose of the conference was to keep clergy in their “proper roles” as teachers and not as advocates.

“The laity of the church are the real actors in matters of public policy,” Baima said. “Our role is to help them see the principles that underlie all of this.”

"Fortnight for Freedom" started on June 21 and finishes on the Fourth of July with a nationally-televised mass broadcast from the basilica in Washington D.C.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name and title of Catholic Conference of Illinois Executive Director Robert Gilligan, and the location of the offices, which are in both Springfield and Chicago. The Catholic Conference launched I-CAN to inform Catholics about state and federal government issues affecting the church.

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