On March 3, Catholic students from George Washington University lead the praying of the rosary outside the White House, to show support for religious freedom that they say is threatened by the HHS mandates.
On March 3, Catholic students from George Washington University lead the praying of the rosary outside the White House, to show support for religious freedom that they say is threatened by the HHS mandates.
Their number was biblical, and their message reflected their belief in the Gospel and in the U.S. Constitution. On March 3, Catholic students from George Washington University on short notice organized a Mass of Conscience. Then their group of 12 prayed the rosary outside the White House, as a prayerful witness for the religious freedom that they believe is threatened by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' mandate requiring health insurance coverage for abortion-inducing drugs, sterilizations and contraceptives.

Standing at a small altar behind a stained glass window that read, "With God, All Things Are Possible," Father Greg Shaffer, the chaplain at George Washington University's Newman Center, celebrated the Mass of Conscience at the center's chapel.

"It (this issue) is not about contraception. It's about being forced to act against our conscience," said the priest, who said the mandate threatens the Catholic Church's charitable, health care and educational outreach in this country. "That's what's at stake."

Father Shaffer said that numbers didn't matter on that day - their witness did, and he praised the students for being catalysts in standing up for religious freedom. He said he hoped their example would spur an archdiocesan-wide movement. "Today we're prayerfully and peacefully making our voices heard," the college chaplain said.

Before walking to the White House, the students ate subs together downstairs at the Newman Center. Lindsay Butkus, a sophomore majoring in communications at nearby George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., was invited by a G.W. student to join the prayer vigil.

"I came out today as a Catholic. Being able to live my beliefs is very important to me. I don't agree with the health care mandate," she said, adding that despite the Obama Administration's announced accommodation, "that money (for those services) is still coming from somewhere. I don't want to give money for something I don't believe in."

Butkus said she hopes the nation's Catholics stand up for their religious freedom and against the mandate. "If we all used the voices we have, we could make a difference."

The student added, "I believe that you have to stand for something, or you can fall for anything. If we let the government control this, who knows what they'll try to control next."

The students then began walking together through the George Washington University campus, toward the White House which is about five blocks away. Three of the women held signs that together read, "PROTECT RELIGIOUS LIBERTY." They walked through the center of campus past other students who were mulling about on a mild Saturday afternoon.

"This event is important to raise awareness.. (about) the government threatening the religious liberty of a specific group of people," said Michael Russo, the student president of the G.W. Newman Center who is studying history and classics. "It (the students' witness) attaches faces to the issue. It shows people are impassioned about it and willing to stand for the issue, especially on a campus like G.W., which isn't religious."

That point was echoed by Chris Crawford, a G.W. political science major who helped organize the prayer vigil. "We organized this (because) we got upset with the mandate. We saw it as an affront to religious liberty. We're in the middle of a city and a campus where we feel like we're standing alone a lot. This was the tipping point."

The fact that G.W. students were publicly standing up for religious freedom, Crawford said. "sends a good message, that this movement is coming from G.W. We are on a really secular campus."

Prayer, he said, is "very important" in such an effort. "That's at the center of it all. It broadens the message and strengthens it. It brings it beyond politics."

As the students walked closer to the White House, Kara Dunford, a political communications major at G.W., said, "(It's) important for us at the Newman Center, as college students, to get involved in issues that are important to our future as Catholics in the United States. Particularly on this issue, it's important for us to send a message (that) it's not just bishops and priests who care about this HHS mandate, it's us as college students. We realize this encroaches on our liberties as practicing Catholics."

Dunford said the fact their witness was centered on prayer is critical. "What we're trying to show is all Church teaching is rooted in love. It's not bigotry. It's not hate. Starting with a Mass, and ending with a rosary, we can show it. We're not out there screaming with signs."

Holding the sign for "Liberty" was Justyna Felusiak, who is studying political science at G.W. "I just feel like everyone has the constitutional right to religious freedom," she said. "This is beyond me being Catholic. It's what our country was founded on, and why people came here. It's been (our) tradition and our law since the country started."

She too emphasized the importance of prayer in the effort: "As a Catholic, I feel that's a great solution to many situations and problems."

Joining the students was Bryce Garber, a lay missionary from FOCUS - the Fellowship of Catholic University Students - serving at the G.W. Newman Center. "The reason I came out today, (is) I believe in the freedom of religious expression laid out in the Constitution, and I don't think the government has any right stepping into that," he said. "...Up until this time in history, there's never been a point and time where the government has stepped in and tried to direct the practice of faith."

Then the group arrived on the sidewalk in front of the White House, and they quietly prayed the rosary together, as tourists walked by and some people took pictures of them. About a block away, protesters highlighting an international issue used a loud speaker to direct their message toward the White House.

After they had prayed the rosary, the group of George Washington University students and their friends walked together back to campus. Dan Grossano, another FOCUS missionary serving at the G.W. Newman Center, said he hoped their witness would be "the beginning of a great response against this grave violation of conscience."

The young adult said it was "encouraging to see students taking the initiative with this... An attack against one is an attack against all."

Emily Puckett, a G.W. sophomore majoring in international relations, had held the "Religious" sign, and said the students' peaceful witness was important. "We're here to pray," she said. "Everyone was here for the right reason."

She too underscored her concern for protecting religious freedom. "Religious freedom is something our country was founded on. It's so crucial," she said, expressing concern about what might happen if people remain indifferent about the HHS mandate and its future implications. "In the future, there will be no limits," she said. "It's important we stand up now. We need to stop it."

That point was also made by Nicolas Pedreira, a psychology major at G.W. "I think as a Catholic, I have a responsibility to stand up for my religious freedom in this and for the religious liberty of others," he said. "Right now, they're coming for Catholics. Who knows where the government will go next in its breach of religious freedom."

Those moments praying quietly in front of the White House were important, he said. "It's good it's a silent protest, that will catch people's attention. We stood firm in our faith."

George Washington University student Christina Longofono, a history major, also emphasized the importance of prayer in the effort to protect religious freedom. "Jesus said, 'I am the vine, and you are the branches. Apart from me, you can do nothing.' It's very important that we not only acknowledge God, but involve him in our efforts to protect our right to worship him."

On Tuesdays, she joins other Catholic students in praying the rosary outside an abortion clinic on campus, and sometimes people curse at them, so Longofono said she wasn't worried about what reaction their prayer vigil would provoke.

"This isn't an issue that just faces Catholic Americans. It faces all Americans... If the government can take way the (religious freedom) rights of one people, it can take away everyone's rights," she said.

As she walked with her friends back to campus, she added, "Culturally, this is not a popular issue. It's important that we do what's right, even when everyone is not on our side."