By Paula Schlueter Ross
Roman Catholic Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades told news reporters he was “really overwhelmed” when a group of some 250 people — mostly pastors and members of Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod congregations in the Fort Wayne, Ind., area — greeted him with letters and words of support April 17 in Fort Wayne.
The “Stand Together for Religious Liberty” event was organized by St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Fort Wayne, in response to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate that requires nearly all private health plans — even those offered by religious organizations — to provide contraceptives, including those that serve as “morning after” (abortion) pills. The Catholic Church opposes all forms of artificial contraception, and both the LCMS and the Catholic Church teach that human life begins at conception, and do not condone abortion.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty on April 12 issued a statement calling the HHS mandate an “unjust law” because it restricts religious liberty. Rhoades, of the Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese, was one of five bishop consultants for the statement.
St. Paul’s encouraged area LCMS congregations to write letters of support to Rhoades. A total of 112 letters — including at least one out-of-state letter from St. John Lutheran Church in State Center, Iowa — bearing 1,396 signatures were handed to Rhoades outside Fort Wayne’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. The Lutheran group walked to the cathedral from St. Paul’s, about a block away, to meet with the bishop and area Catholics as they left noon Mass.
“We wanted to show that even though we’re not Roman Catholics, as fellow Christians and American citizens we’re concerned about any kind of erosion of our religious liberty,” St. Paul’s Senior Pastor Rev. Peter Cage told reporters.
The Fort Wayne event was inspired by an appeal in February from LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, a former pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne, urging LCMS members to “join with me in supporting efforts to preserve our essential right to exercise our religious beliefs.”
Harrison and other religious leaders testified in opposition to the HHS mandate before the House of Representatives Committee on Government Oversight and Reform Feb. 16. At the hearing, Harrison reminded committee members that “religious people determine what violates their consciences, not the federal government.”
LCMS Life and Health Ministries Director Maggie Karner also has spoken publicly about the issue, saying the federal mandate “goes against the conscience” of pro-life Christians.
“Because of the respect we, as a church body, have for the sanctity of human life,” Karner said at the “Rally for Religious Liberty” March 27 in Jefferson City, Mo., “we cannot sanction the distribution and payment for these products that we feel take human life.”
Efforts to defend religious liberty also are supported by faculty and students at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne. The faculty adopted and published a statement opposing the HHS mandate, and the seminary’s student body presented a letter supporting Bishop Rhoades.
The Rev. Dr. Charles Gieschen, the seminary’s academic dean, quoted from the faculty statement during his remarks at the event, noting that the statement calls upon Christians “to stand in solidarity with those under assault” and “support those who put themselves on the line in defense of this liberty.”
Said Gieschen: “Even as the Lutheran faculty and students of the Concordia Theological Seminary have stood and walked with Roman Catholics in this community for many years in upholding the sanctity of human life, we again stand with these brothers and sisters in Christ on the issue of protecting the free exercise of religion in our great nation so that Christians may be about the mission that Christ has given to His church.”
Also taking part in the “Stand Together” event were seminary students, pastors and members from about a dozen congregations, LCMS Indiana District President Rev. Daniel May, and, with parental permission, some 60 upper-level students from St. Paul’s Lutheran School.
“My heart is filled with gratitude to you, my brothers and sisters of Lutheran congregations of the Missouri Synod here in Fort Wayne,” the bishop told the crowd. “Your gesture of solidarity with the Catholic Church in the defense of our religious liberty is a beautiful witness for which I am deeply grateful. Your letters of support and your public testimony highlight the importance of defending our first and most cherished liberty as American citizens.”
Cage told Reporter via email that the event “turned out as I hoped it would: a joyous, positive, non-partisan, yet pointedly direct response of concerned Christian citizens to such a serious threat in our country — this surreal government overreaching by the HHS mandate that seeks to impose on the Church what our doctrine and practice should be in speaking out on the sanctity of life.
“In standing up in support of and with our neighbor Bishop Rhoades and his church on this matter that affects both of our churches, we were able to engage this topic in the public square in a way that brings biblical thinking to bear on matters that affect us all as citizens. We will not rebel against authority, but neither do we sit quietly by as they try to impose a moral wrong upon churches.”
Dr. Christopher C. Barnekov, a member of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and an organizer of the “Stand Together” event, said he was “delighted by the turnout and extent of participation,” especially because it helped local congregation members to become “much more aware of both the blessings of religious liberty and the current assaults on liberty, particularly those related to the health care act.”
Local TV stations and newspapers also covered the event, he said, sharing those concerns even more widely.
“Area LCMS people have been working closely with our Catholic neighbors for years on pro-life activities,” Barnekov added. “It was clear that this event has strengthened these ties substantially.”
To read related stories, click on headlines below:
- “Catholics & Lutherans rally for religious freedom”
- “Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod offers solidarity with Catholics defending religious liberty”
- “Area Lutherans stand behind Catholics against contraception mandate”
- “Church vs. state: Health reform mandate creates divide”
Posted April 19, 2012 / Updated April 20, 2012