Bel Air Religious Freedom rally

People stand with their signs in front of the Harford County Circuit Courthouse in Bel Air Friday afternoon to their protest over the federal HHS mandate covering birth control and abortion. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF, Homestead Publishing / March 26, 2012)

Close to 150 people protested the federal Health and Human Services mandate Friday outside the Harford County Circuit Courthouse in Bel Air — three times the number event coordinators originally projected.

People driving and walking down Main Street during their lunch hour stopped to look at signs protesters held. Several honked their horns and waved in support.

"Stop HHS," read one sign.

"Bill of Rights: Protect Article 1," read another.


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Parents came with their children. One older woman held her grandson. People of all ages were speaking in one unified voice against a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services requirement that that could force all employers, including religious organizations, to offer contraceptives and sterilization procedures through their employee health plans.

"It's a violation of who we are as human beings and who we are as people of faith," Paula Hoppel, who organized Friday's Bel Air rally, said of the HHS mandate. "A violation of any conscience is a violation of freedom."

Father Rob Northwood, of the Church of Reconciliation on Bond Street near the rally site, spoke at the event.

The mandate affects him and everyone at his church, Northwood pointed out.

He said he would not comply with the requirement.

"We won't violate our conscience," Northwood said, warning that hiring will be affected at the church and employees' health care will also be impacted.

"The health care of America is going to become more expensive," Northwood said of the consequences.

Bel Air's peaceful rally was one of more than 130 events around the U.S. Friday planned through the organization Stand Up for Religious Freedom. In the past 25 years, Harford County's population has become increasingly more conservative on social, as well as political, issues, so in one sense the strong turnout in the county seat on a sunny, uncomfortably hot March afternoon, wasn't surprising.

Hoppel said she originally had intended to go to a rally planned in Baltimore — at the time the closest planned to Harford County — but found she wouldn't be able to make it. Instead, she contacted Stand Up for Religious Freedom, and they encouraged her to pull her own rally together.

Hoppel only had a few days to make calls, spread the word, find a location, go through the proper channels and find some speakers.

In the end, hours spent on the phone and organizing paid off.

"We need to have a place to stand," Hoppel, a Havre de Grace resident, said, adding that she was "amazed" at the turnout and had been able to meet people of all faiths and backgrounds.

Hoppel said that the HHS mandate is something that should offend everyone, religious or not, because it impedes on everyone's right to freedom as a United States citizen.

Whiteford resident Jody Ward held signs on a corner of Main Street, her son Reuben joining her.

"The issue at hand is an issue of religious liberty," Ward said.

She wore a shirt and pin promoting her pro-life beliefs.

A government mandate that would condone the use of abortion-inducing drugs is an issue that is close to her heart, Ward said

"Abortion is the murder of an innocent person," she said, adding that employers paying for medication that could possibly assist in abortion is "something we will not stand for."

Ward said the issue of government ordering people to do something against their will is one that should be important to all Marylanders, especially since many of our forefathers fled from England to avoid religious persecution.

With the HHS mandate, Ward said, it feels like that persecution has come full circle.

"The Department of Health and Human Services keeps insisting churches violate their religious consciences," she said. "[They're] tormenting us with laws of which we can't comply."