WASHINGTON –– Some people will go to great lengths to protect their religious freedom. For one 21-year-old from Holy Family Church in Middletown, Md., that distance was 100 miles.
Jennifer Holcomb said she was shocked to find that many of the people she encountered while on a weeklong walk for religious freedom were uninformed about the rules of the federal government's contraceptive mandate, which was the focus of the second annual Religious Freedom Walk.
On June 9, a group of around 50 people ages 8 to 70, including Holcomb, departed on foot from St. Peter Catholic Church in Hancock, Md., to embark on a journey to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. They arrived in the nation's capital June 15.
Participants traveled 100 miles to spread awareness and protest against the mandate, issued by the federal Department of Health and Human Services as part of the health care law. It requires most employers, including religious employers, provide coverage of contraceptives, sterilization and some abortion-inducing drugs free of charge, even if the employer is morally opposed to such services.
"Last year we did a walk for religious freedom from Hancock to Baltimore, so I thought about it and prayed about it and said let's walk to Washington this year to call attention to an issue that, a year later, people have grown apathetic toward or still don't know about," Father Jack Lombardi, 52, told Catholic News Service in an interview June 16 on the campus of The Catholic University of America.
The group planned later attended an early evening Mass at the national shrine on the edge of campus.
When it was first issued, the HHS mandate included a narrow exemption applying only to those religious institutions that seek to inculcate their religious values and primarily employ and serve people of their own faith. On Feb. 1, the federal government issued new proposed rules that exempt organizations that are considered nonprofits under specific sections of the Internal Revenue Code. The mandate does not include a conscience clause for employers who object to providing such coverage.
The proposed rules for implementing the mandate are to become effective Aug. 1.
The walkers paused only a few times a day for meals, prayer and rest. The group spent their nights camping in tents, staying in church halls, homes and, on the final night, the Newman Catholic Student Center at George Washington University.
"Every day there were joys and lots of fun and fellowship," said the priest, pastor of St. Peter Church. "We had a few challenges with sickness, injuries, and also with traffic. We were never in any danger, but we had to be careful."
An RV followed alongside the walkers for those who needed a break, felt sick or became injured. Paul Tiller Jr., 16, walked every step of the way.
"I refused to let myself get on the RV," Tiller said. "I believe in my religion, I believe in my country, and I believe that the two go hand in hand. The government has no right to micromanage our lives."
Holcomb said the mandate is particularly concerning to her as a female member of the Catholic Church.
"As a 21-year-old Catholic woman, it really disheartens me to see people on the news talking about the issues of health insurance (in regards to) contraception and sterilization, because they claim it's only men who are against this," Holcomb said. "That's totally not true. There are many women who are against this as well, but if they try to stand up for it, then people say they're brainwashed by the men."
Melissa Koppers, 15, said that the distance of 100 miles in a week proves the group's dedication to fighting for something that they truly believe in–their religion.
"The best part was knowing that we might make a difference in the future," Koppers told CNS.
"It feels amazing not only that we walked 100 miles but that we're doing what God asks us to do. We are soldiers for Christ."