WASHINGTON—Call it a First Amendment exercise or call it a publicity stunt, but it’s a scene played out over and over again in D.C.: A group with a bone to pick descends on the White House, poses for pictures and starts yelling. If the demonstrators really mean it, they venture onto the sidewalk and ignore warnings by park police in order to get arrested.
And as debates surrounding birth control and women’s health care saturate the 2012 election cycle, you can guess why protesters are heading to the Capitol.
A consortium of Christian organizations called ActsFive29 announced in August it would prayerfully occupy the space in front of the White House for three days in early October. The groups represented included the Christian Defense Coalition, Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust, Priests for Life, the American Family Association, and Stand Up for Religious Freedom.
ActsFive29 called for 72 hours of prayer and arrests in protest of the Affordable Care Act because, according to the protesters, it requires “institutions, churches and individuals to purchase abortion-inducing drugs, and pay for sterilization and abortion in direct opposition to their beliefs, conscience and historic teachings of the church.” They're talking about the Health and Human Services mandate requiring all health plans to provide contraception coverage at no cost. A narrow exemption based on religion does apply to churches but not to nonprofit corporations affiliated with churches.
The demonstrations took place in Lafayette Park with people gathering around a small stage to pray and receive instructions on how the event would proceed. Saturday’s rally was attended by about 50 people, with Sunday seeing the highest attendance of around 100. Most carried signs provided by ActsFive29, reading “Stand Up for Religious Freedom” and “Stop Obama’s HHS Mandate.” A handful of Sharpie-wielding citizens penned their own placards decrying a range of moral outrages, including abortion and same-sex marriage.
One attendee took the opportunity to preach her belief that President Obama is ineligible to hold our nation’s highest office. She spoke for 20 minutes, managing to connect all the world’s woes (conflict in Israel, impending Armageddon) to the so-called Muslim who had infiltrated the presidency. Following prayers in the park, demonstrators made their way across Pennsylvania Ave. to the strip of sidewalk in front of the White House with a soundtrack of patriotism and faith sung by those not willing to be arrested for their cause.
The group attracted the attention of weekend tourists whose reactions ranged from genuinely curious to downright snarky, with one onlooker punctuating the protesters’ singing of the national anthem with an enthusiastic “Play ball!”
Event organizer Rev. Patrick Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition told the Alibi the demonstration was not about abortion, contraception or any other women’s health issue but about religious rights—despite the presence of several groups whose focus is outlawing abortion. In fact, during the interview, three anti-abortion activists stood nearby engaging in a heated debate with an abortion rights supporter who was passing by. Mahoney was focused on RU-486 and denouncing Depo-Provera as an abortifacient.
The reverend insisted this was a First Amendment issue and said he does not consider the denial of contraception to be discriminatory towards women. His suggestion for women who might feel inappropriately subjected to their employer’s religious beliefs? They “should go work for someone else.”
Mahoney also revealed his position goes extends beyond contraception to any treatment perceived to be morally offensive. “If the government comes in and dictates to any faith tradition that they have to violate their deeply held faith traditions, then it’s wrong.” He likened their fight to the Civil Rights Movement.
But on Sunday, he showed discomfort at the demonstrators singing “We Shall Overcome” as they marched toward the White House. His quickly redirected the singers to “Amazing Grace.”
In all, 68 were arrested: 22 on Saturday, 34 on Sunday, 12 on Monday, according to ActsFive29. Several minors were among those arrested. Though the demonstration was scheduled to continue through Tuesday, Oct. 2, no one, including Mahoney, showed up that day. The arrests were carried out without incident, and all demonstrators were released after paying a $100 fine.