Lay Catholics organizing across Long Island to defend religious freedom

Catholics for Freedom of Religion, a local non-partisan group, is advocating for and educating local citizens to stand up for religious liberty at the parish and community level.

Back in January, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandated that all employers, including religious institutions, provide employee health insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients.

“Catholics for Freedom of Religion started as a reaction to what I considered to be a blatant attack on America’s freedom of religion,” explained founder Barbara Samuells, a parishioner of St. Matthew’s Church in Dix Hills. She saw it as a response to the bishops who, in the wake of the HHS mandate, said “the laity must be involved,” and “asked us to bring our values and principles to the political and public arena.”

The group “is an idea and a resource,” she said. “It is our idea to promote these non-partisan groups of laity to advocate and educate for freedom of religion. We go into the churches and find people who are already involved and ask them to form these freedom of religion groups.”

Catholics for Freedom of Religion, which has partnered with the Florida-based group Catholics Called to Witness, asks that these parish groups be based on four pillars — that they advocate, educate, reach out to and include people of other faiths, and that the groups be permanent, “because this attack is not fleeting,” Samuells noted. They provide a step-by-step guide on how to start a parish group, and Samuells or one of her volunteers will go into a parish to give a start-up presentation. Their group also provides information on how to organize a freedom of religion event, how to find a speaker, and other action items. As each parish starts a group, they can then help other parishes do so. “I’ve lost track” of how many parish groups there are now on Long Island, Samuells said. “It started with me and these volunteers and it has spread out from there, which is what we hoped would happen.”

“It starts with the laity,” said Samuells. “That’s the call from the clergy. We have to learn the issues and awaken people’s awareness to the facts. Once people understand the issues, they can understand what their conscience is telling them to do — whether it’s how to vote, or telling their family and friends, or volunteering.”

Catholics for Freedom of Religion has helped start groups in parishes all over the diocese, but a very active group is in St. Aidan’s Church in Williston Park. Eileen Wolfe, who organizes it, noted that an average meeting will draw 125 parishioners as well as neighbors from different faiths and communities, but she’s had as many as 375 people show up to an event. The group has several committees — “Right now our legislative committee is very busy signing up people for absentee ballots or voter registration” ahead of the elections, she said. The media committee keeps busy writing articles and blogging and tweeting. She added that all this work “is not just for this presidential election. This fight will continue after the election.”

Wolfe got involved in the group, she said, because last winter she realized she was “fearful that God is being removed from the United States in many shapes and forms.” Under the HHS mandate, “the reality is the Catholic hospitals could be closed down, Catholic Charities could be closed down. The goal is religious freedom, educating people of faith on how bad the situation is, and empowering them to act.”

“The most important thing is that if we don’t have God in the country, the country doesn’t have a chance,” she said. “The government cannot replace God.”

“This is about an attack on every American’s freedom of religion,” noted Samuells. “Your freedom is being attacked — your freedom to practice your religion or even to not practice a religion.”

“I feel so hopeful,” she added. “God has blessed us because many people have started to do this. We need this to be ongoing. I would like (people to look back years from now) and see us as the founding members of the freedom of religion group within the Church, so that every generation will be taught how dearly it was fought for and how important it is.”

For more information on Catholics for Freedom of Religion or how to start a group in your own parish, visit http://www.catholicsforfreedomofreligion.org/ or contact parishleaders@yahoo.com.