They came by bus and by BART, carrying, this being a Friday in Lent, cheese or egg sandwiches. They toted signs, mass-produced and homemade, quoting the United States Constitution.
If this group was any indication, it is not a right they are about to give up quietly.
One of 145 Stand Up for Religious Freedom rallies nationwide that drew an estimated 65,000 people, the San Francisco rally was organized by the California Civil Rights Foundation, which is headed by Rev. Walter Hoye.
Fifty-six parishioners from Immaculate Heart of Mary in Brentwood, who embarked on a plan of action almost two months, in response to the Health and Human Services mandate, made the 100-mile round-trip on a yellow school bus.
St. Edward Church in Newark brought a busload of parishioners, including Maria and Joseph Silmaro and seven of their eight children. (The eldest was working.) Maria Silmaro said she had been praying about what to put on a sign to carry at the rally. The mother who home-schools her children had recently seen online a lesson from Hillsdale College on the Constitution.
"We need to stand up for our freedom and be courageous," she said.
The Most Rev. Salvatore J. Cordileone, bishop of Oakland, was the first speaker at the noon event. He told the crowd their support on the issue of religious freedom was critical. "We know this is not a Catholic issue. This is not an issue that affects only Christians as a whole. It's not even one that affects only people of faith, whatever faith tradition they might profess. Rather, this affects all of us as Americans because our first freedom is the freedom of religion, rightfully placed in the First Amendment of the Constitution," the bishop said.
"The freedom of religion is not something confined to what goes on within the walls of our houses of worship, and our Founding Fathers understood that," he said. "It has to do with freedom for us to be people of faith in the public square. Not to impose our beliefs as public doctrines on others, but to put into action the values that our faith informs us in and solidifies for us, those values that work to the betterment of everyone in society."
He told the crowd that he had spoken with his mother the night before, and told her he would be speaking at the event.
"She was very worried about the state of religious liberty in our country," he said. "She said, 'This is what the Pilgrims came to this country for, for religious freedom, and now it's being taken away from us.' "
"My 88-year-old mother, who did not go to college, is able to understand that. Why cannot so many of our public officials? "
The crowd cheered.
He continued: "How dare the government tell us who are the members of our faith community? How dare the government tell us that our religion requires us to serve only people of our own faith? How dare the government tell us what it means for us to inculcate our religious values? How dare the government define for us our religious mission? Yes, get the government out of my church."
"We all realize what is at stake. This time, it's Catholics. But it won't stop there. This time our church is being targeted. This is a matter of us being able to put our faith into action without government interference."
Among those in attendance was a trio of middle-schoolers from St. Isidore Parish in Danville. Heather Scheibley, Addie Frost and Mary Lovejoy got a first-hand civics lesson. The event was a prelude to going to see the film the "The Hunger Games," which Heather's mother, Teresa Scheibley said could be considered a cautionary tale of what could happen if a government gains too much power.
As she waited for the bus to go back to Brentwood, Sandy Heinisch, an Immaculate Heart of Mary parishioner, said the day had been "awesome" and that she had been energized by the bishop's speech. "My apolitical days are over," she said.
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